Robert Gehrke: Utah has paid big for a tracking app that still doesn’t work right

Robert Gehrke

Utah inked a deal back in March worth up to $6 million in the first year with a New York-based tech company to build the ballyhooed Healthy Together app.

The idea was to track user location data and when people test positive for the coronavirus, the government’s contact tracers could use the information to figure out where they had been, where they might have been exposed and to whom else they might have spread the virus.

“It’s really about having the right tool in the toolbox,” Gov. Gary Herbert said when publicly unveiling the app a little more than a month ago. “These tools will help us slow the spread of the COVID virus and, as much as we can, stop its spread.”

The New York company, Twenty Holdings, led by Diesel Peltz, the son of hedge-fund billionaire Nelson Peltz, proposed repurposing a social media program intended to let people connect with others nearby.

But now, nearly two months after the contract was signed and more than seven weeks after the app was supposed to be fully up and running, it still is not functioning the way it was envisioned.

For most of its existence, the app was little more than a mobile version of the symptom checker that Intermountain Healthcare already rolled out, along with a map showing test sites.

At her May 11 briefing, Dr. Angela Dunn, the state epidemiologist, said that, at that point, the Healthy Together app was strictly a health assessment tool.

Not long after that, the location tracking piece was launched. But the company is still developing the portal to collect the data. Utah Department of Health spokesman Tom Hudachko told me Friday that the earlier version of the portal needed some tweaks and it’s now in the testing phase with hopes of taking it live sometime in the next week.

Until that goes live, an app user who tests positive can still share the collected data with a contact tracer, but all of the information has to be manually entered into the state database. “It’s not ideal,” Hudachko said.

Since the tracking feature launched earlier this month, 50 people have received notifications through the app that they had tested positive for COVID-19, Hudachko said. From there, county or state contact tracers have followed up.

A spokesman for Twenty told me Friday that “the plan has always been to deliver a flexible solution that can evolve in response to state needs.” The initial rollout was to include the assessment, an opt-in for test results and a threat level rating, and the portal experience would be available soon.

The March 28 contract the state signed with the company, however, estimated that the portal and back-end analytics would be available 10 days after the deal was formalized.

Even if it was already working, the initial $2.75 million the state paid to develop the app — plus an additional $300,000 each month for the first year to manage the data — is, I am told by tech experts, a remarkable figure.

To date, more than 50,000 people have downloaded the app, 225,000 have taken an assessment and 8,000 have been been tested and received results, the company says.

Right now, the app does not comply with the standardized guidelines (API) recently released by Google and Apple intended to enable apps from different developers to share data — something that would significantly increase the program’s usefulness. The Twenty spokesman said the guidelines were released after the app was developed and that the company is working with the state to determine what best meets the state’s needs.

Another Utah company, Ferry, led by the son of prominent Utahn Khosrow Semnani, approached the state shortly after it had inked its deal with Twenty Holdings, offering a free tracing app that the company says would provide more precise location information and more useful information to health officials.

Taymour Semnani told me that the offer stands if the state wants to integrate Ferry’s technology into the existing Healthy Together app, which he says would offer higher resolution data, minimize false positive exposures, and “would make the application far more valuable” for contact tracing.

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I’m not saying that apps like Healthy Together or any of the many, many similar apps on the market aren’t useful. On the contrary, to the extent they can automate or at least facilitate the job of contact tracing, these apps could be invaluable in monitoring the spread of the virus and identifying hot spots as we move to reopen the economy.

But we also need to be careful about how we spend taxpayer money, and Healthy Together is not the only big money emergency contract the state signed that warrants scrutiny.

Rep. Andrew Stoddard, D-Murray, is working on legislation to place some limits on the government’s contracting powers in an emergency. Stoddard said he doesn’t want to limit truly urgent purchases — like protective equipment and ventilators — but for less critical needs, like the app, there should be a modified procurement process open to bidders.

“The state did a lot of things that were really great in terms of preparation and execution,” Stoddard said, “but what we need to do now is look at everything that was done and see what we can do better next time.”

He’s right. Some balance and precautions need to be in place, even in an emergency for noncritical purchases. Otherwise, as we’ve seen with Healthy Together, taxpayers end up overpaying for the latest shiny technology that, thus far, has not delivered as promised.