Covid-19 Exclusives: Building an App for a Crisis


TO BUILD A properly functioning app for urgent public use is no small feat. Take for example the now defunct Penang Contact Tracer application, or PGCare for short.

Granted, the idea of developing a contact tracing app was first mooted back in March when Covid-19 clusters began emerging in Malaysia. “The plan was to create a user-friendly app that is easily accessible, and that allows the public to check-in to a location by scanning the QR code,” says CEO Praburaajan Selvarajan of Madison Technologies, the software development company appointed to design PGCare in collaboration with the Penang State Government.

Praburaajan Selvarajan.

What began as a corporate social responsibility initiative CovCT, was later adopted by the Penang state and renamed PGCare. “The partnership with Penang began when the Chief Minister responded to our email expressing his interest,” says Praburaajan. This email was also sent to other state governments.

When Malaysia first went into partial lockdown from late March to early May this year, contact tracing was still considered inessential; but during the Conditional MCO that followed, when the economy began moving again, and when movement restrictions were relaxed that it quickly became imperative to put such a measure in place.

Tweaking the Nuts and Bolts

To determine that the information keyed in was valid, the app was designed to send a One-time Password to first-time users to verify their personal information. The data collected, e.g. locations where users had checked-in, were stored privately and anonymised on the platform. “The data was held in trust until requested by relevant local authorities who, with their respective contact tracing protocols, would contact these users,” explains Praburaajan. User information was also timed to be permanently erased from the database after six months.

Launching of PGCare app.

IT professionals were assigned to test the security features of the app to ensure that it could not be easily hacked.

According to Praburaajan, PGCare was one of the first contact tracers to be introduced in Southeast Asia which incorporated the use of QR code, and that enabled users to view their 30-day check-in history.

Getting the public to actively use the app, however, was a challenge. Many did not see the need to go through the hassle of checking-in at every place they visited, while others were hesitant in disclosing personal information. The app began to receive wider acceptance only when local businesses made it mandatory for the public to check-in via the app before entering their premises.

“A fancy and futuristic app does not necessarily make a good app; it is often how inclusive an app is in a society that determines its usefulness,” says Praburaajan, adding that PGCare’s swift adoption should be attributed to its userfriendliness. “Even if you were not a smartphone user, you could still check-in at a location by sending a SMS to a specific code printed on all PGCare posters.”

The app’s creation process was daunting to say the least, and involved many sleepless nights and numerous rounds of discussion with local authorities to get it ready in a short time span. But for Praburaajan and his team, the journey was a fruitful one: “Overall, it was an exciting learning experience for the team, for them to be part of this nationwide effort to fight a pandemic.”

Enzo Sim is a Mass Communications graduate who has an unwavering passion towards International Relations, history and regional affairs of Southeast Asia. His passion has brought him to different Southeast Asian capitals to explore the diverse cultural intricacies within the region.

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