Review: The New Zealand COVID tracer app

The New Zealand COVID tracer app has been released on Wednesday morning - but not everyone can use it and reviews are mixed so far.

Some Kiwis say they can't find the app to download, and those who have managed to give it an average rating of 2.6 on the Google Play Store, with complaints it's "poorly designed" and won't let them sign-up.

How to find it?

The first problem is finding the app.

The Ministry of Health says the app is available through the Google Play Store and the Apple App Store, however searching the Google store only brings up two apps from the World Health Organisation.

The app is downloadable if you search for it and go through the Google Play link on the Ministry of Health website.

Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield says so far more than 30,000 Kiwis (himself included) have already downloaded the app.

How do you use it?

The app allows New Zealanders to create a 'digital diary' of where they visit by scanning QR codes at the entrances to business premises, other organisations and public buildings.

It's pretty simple - open up the app and hit the 'scan' box which will bring up your camera.

People can also add their details and address so contact tracers can get in touch with them if needed.

Review: The New Zealand COVID tracer app
Photo credit: Ministry of Health

"In the next release, NZ COVID Tracer will be able to notify you if you have been at the same location at the same time as someone who has COVID-19 and will allow you to send your digital diary directly to the National Close Contact Service," Director General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield says.

It will take at least a few days for a significant number of businesses to generate QR codes and display QR code posters.

What do Kiwis think?

There are reports of problems with older iPhones, as the app does not appear to be available on these.

And there are issues with other phones too.

"It would appear that the new fancy Govt tracing app isn't so fancy as it won't even load onto my very common inexpensive Huawei phone," one person emailed Newshub.

An error message using a Huawei phone.
An error message using a Huawei phone. Photo credit: Supplied

Newshub tests on both Android and iPhone found no problems downloading, installing and registering using the app.

However other Kiwis had teething issues - with the app currently having an average rating of just 2.6/5 on the Google Play store.

"Failing to sign up as doesn't accept the code it sends to an email address which leaves the registration process in limbo. Re-sign up fails as it says your email is already registered but doesn't let you login due to earlier code failure. Fix the app please!" one person wrote.

"Will not accept my mobile number. Really poorly designed app. My confidence in the Ministry of Health has taken a knock. Maybe the minister himself designed it. He seems to be quite useless at following simple instructions," another commented.

iPhone users were more impressed - giving it four-and-a-half stars.

"Still has minimal features, but it's well-built. I'm guessing once Apple / Google's Bluetooth solution is released publicly it will incorporate that functionality too," a five-star review reads.

What are the expert reviews?

Professor Dave Parry, head of computer science at Auckland University of Technology, says the app is "relatively simple". It won't drain your phone battery as it doesn't currently use Bluetooth to detect who you have been in contact with.

"The NZ app just records where you have been using its own QR codes to 'check-in' to places," he told Science Media Centre.

"The advantages of this approach are that it supplies exactly the information needed by the contact tracing team and won't add lots of other information about probably non-significant contacts. It doesn't depend on everyone using it, unlike the Bluetooth approach, and it should use less power."

But Prof Parry says there are problems with the app.

"The biggest issue with this app is that it doesn't really bring many benefits to the person using it," he says.

"It doesn't replace the check-in systems to businesses or even allows you to automatically send your history to the contact tracing team, although this is promised.

"I found the interface to set it up rather clunky and I suspect a lot of people will give up.

"People are used to very easy-to-use apps and for something designed to be used by the whole population this feels like a government app."

Are there any privacy issues?

Information will be stored on your phone and deleted automatically after 31 days.

Privacy Commissioner John Edwards says the app is a "privacy-friendly" solution and New Zealanders should feel secure downloading and using it.

"I want to assure New Zealanders that this app was created using 'privacy by design' principles which put privacy at the foundation of the process," he says.

"Contact tracing apps are an emerging technology for tracking and managing pandemics. For them to work well, a high percentage of the population needs to use them. The more people who use them, the more effective they will be."