26 May 2020

Covid-19 tracing app 'unusable' for blind and those with low vision

9:15 am on 26 May 2020

Experts in technology for the blind and people with low vision are slamming the government for releasing a contact tracing app they can't use.

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Photo: 123RF

They say the NZ Covid Tracer app, launched six days ago, lacks functions to let people who have low vision know where a QR Code poster is, and whether they've scanned in or not.

The Ministry of Health says the app meets government standards for accessibility and was praised by a leader in technology for the disabilities sector.

But that leader, Jonathan Mosen, who is blind, says he told the ministry three times that its app was "unusable".

Another technology expert, Thomas Bryan of the Blind Low Vision group - formerly the Blind Foundation - took the app out for a test-run at the weekend, after he'd downloaded it.

"I didn't struggle too much to set it up and install it," Bryan said.

"But I know that a number of blind people have done. Some of the labelling could be improved to make it better so it's more intuitive."

He left his house expecting to easily find a shop in Wellington that had registered for the app, got assigned a QR code, then pasted this up in the window.

"That was probably my first biggest hurdle - where are these jolly things?"

The uptake of the app so far amounts to 13,600 businesses - less than 3 percent of the country's 540,000 businesses - and 380,000 people who've downloaded it.

Australia has had far faster and greater uptake of its tracing app, which relies on different technology to track person-to-person interactions.

Bryan's wife was with him and finally spotted a QR code poster at Briscoes.

"So, I got out my phone. But of course, you had to try and find it.

"And there was no tones or vibrations to say, straight ahead or where it is, so if I hadn't been with someone who was sighted, I'd have no idea where the code was."

Many apps offer camera-spotting and audio cues or vibrations to guide the blind.

"When I did scan it, there was no indication that it actually it worked. And so, I scanned it again.

"I went back and had a flick-through and found that I've actually scanned in twice. But you know, most apps would certainly give you both a visual and an audio cue that says, 'Thank you for signing in'."

Bryan uses two other apps that provide these functions.

Covid-19 has made people who are blind or have low vision even more vulnerable because they can not see if people are physical distancing, or if cafe workers were properly cleaning the tables, so a workable app is vital, he said.

"Being a government app, it should be 100 percent accessible, and there should have been more discussion with users of the app before releasing it."

Blind Low Vision said it was "potentially dangerous" not to have an app that everyone in the country could use.

"The fact that a government app is not fully accessible and inclusive is very disappointing."

The Ministry of Health said the development of the app conformed "as closely as possible" with the accessibility and low-vision support standards.

"The Ministry has received positive feedback ... including from Jonathan Mosen, CEO of Workbridge" it said, citing a tweet of his.

Mosen said while he did tweet this praise, he also emailed the ministry saying something quite different.

"In my very first email communication, I made it clear that it's great that they have conformed to Apple's accessibility guidelines in terms of the way the app looks and feels, but that as a blind person, it would be difficult for me to find the QR code.

"And I've now made that clear in three separate communications with the Ministry of Health", as recently as last weekend, he said.

It was not possible for a blind person to make the app "part of your day-to-day life", Mosen said.

"At the moment, it is not useful."

It could be the ministry person who used Mosen as a reference in the statement for RNZ and knew about his tweet of praise, did not know about his emails faulting the app, he said.

"They've got a lot on their plate at the moment and I have some sympathy for them."

He had contacted the ministry before the app's launch last week, concerned that he knew of no blind person having been consulted.

"I wasn't able to get a test build of the app because by that stage, the official app's release was very close.

"But I do think it would have been appropriate to give several blind people a copy of this app while it was in the testing phase.

"I don't think that there's any need for particular secrecy with an app like this. There could have been quite a wide public beta testing process."

Mosen uses an app for contact tracing - but not the government's one.

Emails show the ministry asked Mosen just last Saturday for advice on why blind people with android phones might be having download problems - "might there be differences across devices?" a digital change manager asks.

Push for legislative change

The chair of lobby group Access Alliance Chrissie Cowan said officials under pressure had reverted to their old inaccessible ways.

"They just wanted to get something out and just didn't think it through," Cowan said.

"Even though there's digital standards and guidelines, it's not enforceable.

"We need legislation to make it enforceable."

Access Alliance was aiming for that by 2021.

The Internal Affairs Department administers guidelines stating accessibility to web services is a "human right" and anyone delivering a web service must make sure everyone can access it.

It refused to provide comment or say whether the Ministry of Health had breached the guidelines with the tracing app.

The ministry said it was aware vision-impaired people "would welcome additional features such as audio cues and is looking at how future updates to the app can further support accessibility".

Dr Ashley Bloomfield responds

Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield told Morning Report the next functionality coming for the app was the ability to send a message to people who had visited the same venue as someone who had tested positive, he said.

Bluetooth would be at least a couple of weeks after that, he said.

The Ministry of Health would also be looking at improving the app to help those with low vision by adding audio prompts.

"We have certainly aligned it as much as possible with the accessibility and low-vision standards already existing," Dr Bloomfield.

He did not have a timeframe for that audio prompt work, but said it was underway.

"We do want it to be usable and accessible by everyone."

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