You had one job, COCOA!

On 19 June, the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare released a contact tracing app called the COVID-19 Contact-Confirming Application or COCOA for short.

Its development was a bit fumbled, which shouldn’t be surprising given the Japanese government’s track record with all things tech, but in the end COCOA was a tidy app that managed to avoid the murky privacy issues of some other countries’ offerings.

Quite simply, any phone that your phone is within a meter of for over 15 minutes is given an anonymous ID and is logged on your phone. Then, if the owner of the phone with that ID chooses to report their COVID-19 infection on their app, your phone will buzz and, without naming names, tell you to go get checked out. If not, then the ID gets purged after two weeks.

▼ I can’t help having an irrational urge to push the forbidden “register a positive test result” button. It’s like having a big red button that says “DO NOT PUSH.”

It all sounded good, so I went and installed it. However, without fail, everyone I talked to since then did not. They only had a vague awareness that it existed, but after a few minutes of telling them how it worked, they installed it right away. I even talked to the vice principal of a high school who said there had been no effort at all to get students to use the app while in the close-quarters of their classrooms.

Considering that prior to the app’s release Prime Minister Abe said that about 60 percent of the population would need to use the app for it to be effective, this does not bode well.

Sure enough, it’s been reported that as of 8 July, about 6.1 million people downloaded the app. While that’s certainly a big number, it’s only about five percent of the population.

▼ This segment of a TV show does a pretty good job of explaining COCOA but even the caption in the upper right corner wonders if 60 percent is really possible

Worse yet, while a second wave of infections has been spiking, COCOA has been woefully underperforming. From the third to the seventh of this month, about 1,100 new cases have been reported but as of the eighth only three infections have been registered on the app, accounting for only 0.03 percent.

People online had many theories as to why this was.

“These kinds of apps rely on the mutual awareness of everyone. If you don’t have that, it’s useless.”
“They released it in between waves when concern about COVID-19 was at its lowest.”
“The people who actually downloaded the app are probably already very cautious and less likely to get infected.”
“I wonder how many people were notified by those three. I can’t think of anyone outside of my family that I spend 15 minutes within one meter of.”
“They should have made installing the app a condition of getting the 100,000 yen relief money.”
“About 85 percent of people in Japan use smartphones, and students aren’t allowed to bring them into class. So, this won’t work.”
“Well, I heard enough. I’ll be uninstalling mine now.”

This is one of the rare instances where I think all of the above comments are correct. There’s a lot of reasons why COCOA never really got off the ground, but from my experience it really seemed like there was just no clear guidance about it. A lot people thought it wasn’t meant for people like them, weren’t even sure how to get it, or had privacy concerns that didn’t really exist.

It feels a lot like the government knew this wasn’t going to work partway through, and just kind of gave up on making any sort of awareness raising campaign, instead cutting their losses at the reported 41 million yen (US$382,000) it cost to make the thing.

I only heard of it through news articles and never saw a single poster or TV ad explaining how to use COCOA let alone its mere existence. Considering the 60 percent target would require it to become one of the most used apps in the country, it was an amazingly lame effort, if any effort was made at all.

Despite all this, I’ll still keep my app on, since it’s really the least I can do to help. I just wish the government didn’t have the same attitude.

Source: NHK News Web, Smart Flash, Hachima Kiko
Photos ©SoraNews24
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