Just after lockdown began, I joined the core testing team for Ireland’s contact tracing app, which is a key part of the country’s response to the pandemic. We were responsible for ensuring that the COVID tracker app was user-friendly, fast and reliable. Run by the Health Services Executive (HSE), the COVID tracker app notifies users if they have been in close contact with someone with COVID-19, defining a close contact as someone who was within two-metres of a confirmed case for 15 minutes or more.

Our first task was to create test cases for each of the mock-up screens on the app, provided by the software developers. Initially, the team were all working remotely, so we each took a different section, such as the check-in screens, contact tracing screens, and so on. Simply, the screens needed to flow in the very same way as the mock-up. That meant aligning the texts, colour and screen fit as if we were a member of the public.

I loved finding things that were wrong! I was like a teacher with my big red pen. Typos or omissions were really satisfying because they had the potential to make a difference in the country’s fight against COVID-19.

At the start of the pandemic, especially, there was a real sense of anxiety in the country. Everything was so new and unexpected. We felt like we were contributing to the cause, which was great for morale.

Reliability means questioning everything

I worked from home throughout, relying on Microsoft Teams for meetings and updates. Later on, some of the team went into Dublin City Centre to test on Dublin bus, luas and Irish rail. We had a simulation tool to recreate how users interact with the HSE and upload their details. In the event that someone receives a positive diagnosis from HSE, they are asked if they have the COVID tracker app downloaded and are using it.  If yes, the HSE ask if they would share the contacts that the COVID tracker app has recorded on their phone over the past 14 days with the HSE.  Upon sharing the contacts, the HSE can send a notification message to each contact letting them know that they have been in close contact with someone with a positive diagnosis and what the next steps are.

We were the gatekeepers, people relied on us to be thorough. If we thought anything was wrong, we would question it, even if it had been verified by the HSE or other vendors. Often, testing can be pushed to the end of the development cycle, but a project like this shows how critical continuous testing really is.

One of the primary tasks was to check that the flow of all the screens was correct. For example, in one section you check in and you are asked how you are feeling.  If you say you’re not feeling well, the COVID tracker app asks follow up questions. We each had a number of phones by different manufacturers, which we would use to test out different scenarios. Negative testing was just as important as positive testing, given you don’t want to be asking people to self-isolate for the wrong reasons.

Quality brings trust

When you need to get it right, there’s no substitute for test and repeat. Our team carried out about 3,400 individual software tests before the app’s launch. The work totalled 4,727 hours – the equivalent of almost 591 working days.

I think it’s hard to overstate the value of quality in terms of building trust for an app like this. If the public loses confidence, then the take up will be that much smaller.

I hope the service can help Ireland get back to a normal way of life. We’re sociable people. Opening up the bars, restaurants and sports venues again will make a big difference. The tracker app can help to drive the all-important Reproduction Number down, and tide us over until a vaccine arrives.

My overriding emotion is one of pride. I also feel a real sense of ownership for the app. I’ve been saying to all my friends and family: look, you all need to get this thing. It works and it can save lives. Some people have said they don’t want to share private information with big corporations. But that’s not the case. You have control of your data until the HSE asks you to share that information. People are then alerted to get themselves tested and self-isolate, before they show symptoms and pass the disease on. Where’s the harm in that?  

Find out more about Expleo’s role in the COVID-19 app here.

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