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Editorial: Japan gov't COVID-19 app fiasco typifies its chronic IT irresponsibility

The Japanese government has released the results of an investigation into highly publicized issues with its coronavirus contact-tracing smartphone app COCOA, which didn't function properly for over four months.

    Irresponsible handling by the government and businesses involved in the app's development apparently led to the debacle concerning the nation's digital infection control measures.

    Reportedly the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare -- which oversees the app meant to be capable of notifying users of the possibility they came into close contact with coronavirus-infected individuals -- lacked enough personnel with expertise on the app's architecture, while the developers themselves had ill-defined roles internally, which resulted in bugs left overlooked. The state of affairs highlights clearly the app's slipshod management and operation.

    Bugs first appeared when COCOA was updated in September 2020. But the issues went unnoticed because staff neglected to perform operation checks. While the app's problems were highlighted on an online forum for engineers to exchange opinions, the health ministry was slow to share the information with the developers.

    The health ministry has explained that because its officials in charge of the app were unfamiliar with information technology, they did not realize the necessity of performing operation checks nor how serious the glitches were.

    This was despite the government having its own IT experts, including the Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary for Information Technology Policy. Even though the government could have permanently assigned those experts to the health ministry for app development support, it apparently failed to establish such coordination.

    Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe billed COCOA as the ace in Japan's infection control measures. The government bears a heavy responsibility for failing to arrange the necessary systems for the app to function properly.

    How the government entrusted the project to the private sector was also problematic. The companies that signed contracts with the health ministry had little experience developing smartphone apps, and outsourced the practical work to other firms. As a result, a total of six businesses were involved in COCOA's development, including subcontractors and sub-subcontractors.

    Because the distribution of responsibility among the app developers was vague, their response to the errors was delayed even after defects surfaced.

    The art of app development is in repeatedly checking their usability and for bugs, and then improving them. Close coordination between contractors and the contracted must be ensured. The government's decision to leave app development entirely up to private businesses cannot be tolerated.

    While COVID-19 vaccinations have begun in Japan, it will still be some time before their effect becomes plain to see. Improving the app's usability and boosting its prevalence rate beyond the current 20% is an urgent task.

    All ministries and agencies are faced with a common task of enhancing their ability to respond to digitalization. The country's weak IT infrastructure is behind sluggish support measures for small- and mid-sized companies and individuals being hit hard by the pandemic.

    The need to utilize IT in various administrative services, from disaster prevention to social security, continues to grow. The government must review the way it appoints relevant personnel and commissions IT-related projects to the private sector, without being bound by precedents.

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