COVID-19 Tracer app 'gamified' with streaks and stats to encourage scanning

The COVID Tracer app has released a new update which 'gamifies' the experience of logging location data in a bid to get more Kiwis scanning.

Usage of the app has been shown to fall significantly when New Zealand goes days and weeks without new community coronavirus cases, however, scans increase again when new outbreaks emerge.

When New Zealand recorded a positive community case in Northland in January, manual diary entries skyrocketed from 20,472 the day before to 93,666 after the announcement.

The pattern has continued over the past year despite calls from the Ministry of Health to "scan, scan, scan", which appear to have fallen on deaf ears.

Now the Ministry has released a new update of the COVID Tracer app aiming to encourage engagement.

The app, which can be updated on your phone now, features a dashboard showing users however many days out of the past two weeks they have scanned a QR code.

It also rewards users who have scanned or made diary entries for 14 consecutive days with a spiral success badge.

Massey University psychology lecturer Dr Aaron Drummond said he thought it was a great idea to get Kiwis more invested in scanning.

"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."

He said it would also allow users to contribute to New Zealand's overall scanning score, which could help to build a mentality of helping the country achieve collective success.

"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 software developer Newshub previously spoke to said embedding "positive reinforcement" into the app was a powerful way to help Kiwis form the habit of scanning in.

"Most of us agree we should use the app a lot, but we need help and guidance from the system to help us do that better," Radhika Reddy said.

"That third step, to give yourself some sort of positive reinforcement, is really important - a compliment, a pat on the back, a little high-five or whatever. If you're happy you're contributing to a higher purpose, people can repeat the behaviour over and over and it'll form a habit."

Users have already started noticing the change, including Dr Michelle Dickinson, who is also known as Nanogirl.

"Who else has a swirly award for scanning in using NZ COVID Tracer?" she posted to Twitter on Thursday.

Auckland University researcher Dr Andrew Chen noted the updates made the app easier to use and will help to make it more compatible with older phones.

"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," he said.

"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."

Social media commenters have been particularly impressed with the flashlight function, so they can scan QR codes easily at night.

"This is a very cool feature," one person commented.

"It makes sense," another said.