Gamifying the Covid Tracer app – Expert reaction

Streaks and stats are coming to the Covid Tracer app, in a bid to get more people scanning.

After fourteen consecutive days of scanning or diary entries, users will be awarded a spiral success badge.

The SMC asked experts to comment on the update. 

Dr Aaron Drummond, Senior Lecturer, School of Psychology, Massey University, comments:

“The COVID Tracer App update appears to be attempting to employ operant conditioning techniques using both fixed interval and fixed ratio reinforcement schedules to improve user scanning behaviours. The App will now provide users with a reward for the first time they scan each day (fixed interval reward) in the form of a visual indicator of building a reward streak (a spiral). The App will also provide users with a reward (a badge) if the daily reward is claimed every day over a consecutive two-week period. We know that these kinds of rewards are often quite effective at increasing behaviours (which is why we see them in so many games, fitness apps, and rewards cards). I expect that this will be an effective method to increase scanning rates.

“The App also appears to display an indicator of collective success in total country level scans completed, acting as a kind of high score for users to contribute to. Some people particularly enjoy chasing high scores, and this might be an effective way to encourage people to scan more frequently to increase the total number of daily scans. A recent study suggests that ‘cultural tightness’ – how closely a society adheres to norms – is an effective mechanism for reducing deaths and illness from COVID-19. The display of the number of scans might also help to further reinforce the norms and importance of the collective actions of the ‘Team of 5 Million’, thereby strengthening cultural tightness and improving collective Kiwi action to battle COVID-19. Overall, the changes to the COVID Tracer App are based on sound theory and seem likely to be effective at increasing daily scans. It will be interesting to monitor daily scan rates following this important initiative.”

No conflict of interest declared.

Dr Andrew Chen, Research Fellow, Koi Tū – Centre for Informed Futures, University of Auckland, comments:

“This update doesn’t change how the QR code or Bluetooth Tracing systems work, and the systems and processes for contact tracing remain the same. The new features are to help encourage people to use the app more, and to help with usability.

“Perhaps the most important feature is that the Dashboard now has live statistics on NZ COVID Tracer app usage, both for you personally and for the whole country. The analytics data is anonymous, and the Ministry of Health does not get a copy of your QR code scans or Bluetooth logs when collecting statistics. The analytics data does not include location at all, so a regional breakdown of participation is not available.

“The app checks the number of days for which you’ve provided check-in data over the last 14 days, whether that’s scanning a QR code or doing a manual entry. It then shows your progress towards achieving a 14-day streak of check-ins. If you’ve been at home all day, the Ministry of Health suggest doing a manual entry for that day – this is because if you test positive for COVID-19, you will likely upload your location log to the contact tracers, and it’s helpful if the log says you were at home rather than leaving an unexplained gap in the data. If you have data entered for the most recent 14 days, then the icon in the dashboard changes as a reward. This will hopefully help people form a regular habit of keeping their diary up-to-date.

“The national level data is based on the same system that the Ministry of Health has used to release daily usage statistics. The ‘bandwagon effect’ describes how many of us will follow the crowd – the idea behind including this data in the app is that if we can see that lots of other people are using the app, then we might be more likely to use it too. I think that the government should also set shared goals, so that people know what is a ‘good’ number for us to be working towards. I think based on the modelling work by Te Pūnaha Matatini, we want to see at least four million QR code scans a day, and at least two million people participating in Bluetooth Tracing under Alert Level 1 settings.

“There are then a few minor changes that help with usability – the app now allows you to turn on the flashlight when scanning QR codes in dark places, and the app has been optimised for some Android devices so that it loads a bit faster. These have been two of the most common complaints from app users, so hopefully it reduces those barriers to participation. Some more mechanisms for distributing information have also been added, such as MOH announcements being shown on the dashboard, more details for exposure notifications, and a list of COVID-19 test stations for each region.

“The Ministry of Health have also quietly been releasing other updates in recent weeks. The most significant one is that they upgraded the app to version 2 of the Apple/Google Exposure Notification Framework that powers Bluetooth Tracing, which means that it is now compatible with more iOS devices, particularly the iPhone 6. So if you previously couldn’t use Bluetooth Tracing, it is worth trying again to see if it is now compatible with your phone. The Ministry of Health also changed the ‘Finish’ button after scanning a QR code to ‘Okay’, to help avoid the perception that the app is logging a ‘sign-out’ time. Users do not need to scan a QR code when they leave a venue, or push Finish/Okay to end the visit. Data about sign-out times is likely to be unreliable, so the length of time someone spends at a venue for the purposes of defining a contact tracing location of interest is determined through interviews with health officials.

“We need people to be collecting data on their phones so that public health officials have 14 days’ worth of data at the time we discover a new case – only starting to use the app when cases appear in the community is not ideal. I am very interested in seeing how displaying the statistics in the app may help drive participation in digital contact tracing, and I encourage people to get the update over the next week and have a look at the new features.”

Conflict of interest statement: “I have had interactions with the Ministry of Health around digital contact tracing in an academic capacity, but am not employed or paid by them.”