Light shed on the black pen of doom

The pettiness that can be indulged in by bureaucrats given free rein over government communications with a black pen was laid bare this week with the release to The Canberra Times of the full independent report into the COVIDSafe app and its usefulness during the first 10 months of the pandemic last year.

Readers will remember that a heavily redacted version was released publicly in July, with the vast majority blacked out or blanked out and what remained simply revealing a potted history of the app and its development. We suspected then that the report must have been uncomplimentary and so it has proved, but what was surprising was how ridiculous the redactions were, surely done for political reasons and not based on any great secrets of state.

It was not so much what the un-redacted report revealed – that the app hasn’t been useful, and things have not since improved – but the pettiness of bureaucrats in what they tried to cover up. “Yeah, it didn’t really help much and was a bit cumbersome” was the main takeaway from the report: how this reaction was considered such a threat to the health of the nation that they needed to cover it up is not clear. Thankfully, common sense has prevailed and most of the report is now available.

It shows that the app is pretty useless and going by recent statements, the government does not appear to be willing to fix it, so it probably should just be dumped. $8 million is not a huge amount in the scheme of things but this government, like most, does not seem willing to accept failure. Other apps have, on the other hand, proved useful, including government-mandated ones like the QR code check-in apps. NSW is using its own ServicesNSW app but most of the rest of Australia is using the Check-In app first developed by the ACT, and while there are no figures we are aware of on whether they have proved useful in tracking down close contacts, there’s no doubt that people use them and are happy to.

New Zealand has provided a living experiment on how this sort of app can and will be used by the citizenry – it publishes monthly data showing how QR code scanning dips when the country is in the clear and then spikes when COVID returns – and is refreshingly honest about the successes and failures of technology during the pandemic. Australia should learn a lesson.

The other big news this week was the announcement by the ASX-listed company formerly known as PKS Holdings that it had bought an entity called Potential(x) along with a start-up called Ainsoff. No, we’ve never heard of them either although as the operator of The Health Roundtable, the former does have a presence in Australian and New Zealand benchmarking circles. The reason it was news is that PKS – now under the banner of ‘Beamtree’ – has been making waves in the last year or so and is shaping up to become a decent enough player in health data analytics.

We’re not convinced about the wisdom of the name change – ‘Beamtree’ doesn’t do it for us – but former ADHA CEO and now Beamtree CEO Tim Kelsey is making some interesting moves in this new entity. When PKS bought Pavilion Health a couple of months ago, Mr Kelsey told us he thought it had some pretty good IP, and recent results seem to bear that out.

PKS’ own technology is quite widely used in pathology circles and is also being leveraged by third party developers, including a couple of Australian doctors who are using it to build their own apps designed to provide real-time early warning of patient deterioration and harnessing machine learning to streamline and individualise alerts about abnormal pathology results.

There’s some interesting stuff going on here and it’s a company worth keeping an eye on, not just because Mr Kelsey is involved. He has been somewhat of a divisive figure in Australian eHealth since his arrival on the scene in 2015 and he remains so today, but whatever else you say about him, boring is not one.

He was also the driving force behind the 2018-2022 National Digital Health Strategy, which we had a bit of a go at last week in our blog. We asked in our poll if you would give ADHA a pass or fail on the strategy, and readers responded pretty overwhelming in the negative: 16 per cent said pass, 84 per cent said fail.

We also asked what you thought ADHA should be concentrating on it the new strategy. Here’s what you said.

We’ll keep a watch on Beamtree’s progress but meanwhile, we return to the worth or not of another project for our poll question:

Should the COVIDSafe app be written off?

Vote here or leave your comments below.


+2 # DHHS Tasmania staffer 2021-09-04 20:43
An application that has poor take-up by its intended userbase, is hit-and-miss on its core function of identifying close encounters, and impacts on the usability of the device it is installed on (read battery drain), has no future. Additionally, the data it provides is wrapped up in privacy legalities that make it of little use. And think of the overworked epidemiologists that are expected to download, transform, consume and report on this data, for very little gain...
0 # Kate McDonald 2021-09-10 12:35
We also asked in our poll what other technologies you might recommend:

Funds could be reasonably used to grant to research groups who will be more likely and more competitively get to a delta capable solution.


People are reluctant to give up anymore privacy over and above the check in apps. The south Australian trial using facial recognition is exceeding privacy expectations once we open up. The lack of use of checkin apps during low covid demonstrates we don’t want this tracking long term

Current QR codes states use


Not at the moment and we need technologies that are nationally standardised and help overcome the marked variation in clinical and administrative variation

State based check in apps look to be working really well.

Use each states own app, NSW is particularly good as you need to check out as well.

The regular checkin via QR code stuff all states have now. The new Apple/Google framework deployed in the UK is causing so many false positives that whole institutions and businesses are shutting down due to their employees getting spuriously identified, outdoors, meters away from the infected person....

Why not use the state based check in apps where they get some logic which alerts them if a location they had checked into is now a hotspot or not.

Anything would be more useful

The only one that should be considered is the ACT's Check-in app along with an admission of failure and the reasons - so that everyone can learn the lessons. Don't hold your breathe though, it's not in most politicians' genes to admit failure.

Use the Google/ apple ENF with what we have. Then it might work! Otherwise what a waste of money this has been...

All shops/outlets/b usinesses to continue to remind their customers of QR coding when they enter their premises.

Anything would be better

Each state has their own better versions simply using QR codes. Except that NSW has a check out option which makes sense, QLD App does not!

QR scanners work and seem to be generally accepted by the community.

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