Thursday 17 September 2020 4:55 am

Open source should always have been the way for the Covid-19 contact tracing app

The government should have gone with an open source contact tracing app from the beginning, argues Tom Bianchi.

The long-awaited Covid-19 contact tracing app will launch in the UK next week, marking a “defining moment”, according to health secretary Matt Hancock, in our response to the virus. 

While this is encouraging, the app should have landed earlier. From a technological standpoint, there is no excuse for the delay. It reveals a flawed understanding of software development at the heart of Downing Street. 

In a pandemic, speed is critical. When it comes to developing high-quality software at speed, using open source is essential. 

Rather than spending time building applications from scratch, open source software enables organisations to harness code from the world’s best developers. It fuels collaboration and knowledge sharing with a common end goal: better technology. 

Given the time-sensitive nature of the track and trace app, if the UK had pursued this approach in the first instance the app would have launched months ago. Instead, it wasted millions of pounds and hours of resources developing a failed proprietary solution.

The advantages of open source were quickly recognised by other nations. Spain, Cyprus, Slovakia, Latvia, Germany, Italy, France, Austria, Poland, and Hungary were among the countries to incorporate open source into their contact-tracing apps. As a result, all launched ahead of the UK. 

Ireland in particular stands out as a shining example of open source in the public sector. Its app was installed by around 1m people in the first 36 hours and, due to its success, the code used to build it was subsequently given to open source not-for-profit Linux Foundation, enabling other regions to emulate its success. 

Fortunately, the UK did eventually wake up to the benefits and opted to replace its failed proprietary application with an open source one. However, urgent questions need to be asked as to why this didn’t happen sooner – particularly when the government itself acknowledges the critical role it plays, in its Technology Code of Practice

By Downing Street’s own admission, “saving time and resources”, “lower implementation and running costs” and “solving common problems with readily available open source technology” are key advantages of open source software. All of these benefits would have applied to the track and trace app.

On a local government level, open source has also proved hugely successful. A number of local councils have built their websites using it, for example. At a time when resources are stretched and local authorities across the country are facing severe budget cuts, tapping into it has helped councils to advance digital strategies, and do more with less. 

As the government reviews its response to the pandemic in the coming months and years, it is critical that it learns from this incident and more readily embraces open source. It rightly stipulates that bodies must consider using open source given its considerable advantages. 

Had Downing Street adhered more closely to its own advice, the UK’s app stood a chance of actually being world-beating.

Tom Bianchi is vice president of marketing for EMEA at Acquia.

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