Skip to main content



commentary Commentary

Commentary: Here’s how to get TraceTogether downloads up – without making it mandatory

TraceTogether token faces a chicken-and-egg challenge in getting enough people to download and wear the device, says Bryan Tan.

Commentary: Here’s how to get TraceTogether downloads up – without making it mandatory

A government technology agency staff demonstrates Singapore's app called TraceTogether, as a preventive measure against COVID-19 outbreak. (AFP/Catherine LAI)

SINGAPORE: In early March, the Singapore Government announced the launch of TraceTogether, its app to aid contact tracing.

The app was designed to use the Bluetooth Low Energy feature to establish contacts between users who had installed the app, and recording that information within the app. That information would be subsequently retrieved should its user be tested positive for COVID-19, thereby identifying the other users the individual had come into contact with.

To date, the app has had moderate success with about 1.8 million downloads or 25 per cent of the population.

Given the urgency to enhance contact tracing ability due to the fast spreading COVID-19, the Singapore Government applied design thinking principles from the outset in addressing privacy issues when conceptualising the app before its launch.

LISTEN: TraceTogether token and contact tracing apps: Privacy, data usage and other big questions

READ: Commentary: Contact tracing aside, you should worry if you have to report your whereabouts to your boss after work

Minister-in-charge of Smart Nation initiative Dr Vivian Balakrishnan has said in Parliament the data will be only downloaded and used in limited public health circumstances related to COVID-19 and if so, would only be accessed by a small number of government officers.

In addition the design phase added a number of other features such as the automatic destruction of data after a 25-day period and the storage of encrypted information on the app alone.

The app has been open sourced, which means that the source code or the programming language behind the software is publicly available. This important step allows anyone to view the exact code of the technology, and in so doing, to see exactly how the software works.

Members of the open source community both in Singapore and overseas have looked closely at the code. Their reports verify that the code indeed does what the Government says it does and no more.


However, last week the Government announced further enhancements – it will incorporate TraceTogther's features onto a token which will be distributed to all Singapore residents and combine this app with the other key contact tracing technology tool, SafeEntry.

READ: COVID-19 contact tracing ‘absolutely essential’; wearable TraceTogether tokens to be rolled out in June

A woman scans a QR code for SafeEntry digital check-in before entering the building. (Photo: Gaya Chandramohan)

The aim is to reach 75 per cent of the population. The token will help those with hardware issues (such as some Apple users and those with battery issues) and the segments of our population who do not carry around a smartphone.    

Interestingly enough, this move has generated a lot of debate. A petition asking the Government not to make the new token mandatory which has garnered 45,000 signatures to date.  

On the other hand, some quarters contend that given Singapore's fight against COVID-19 is still ongoing, the use of this technology should now be made mandatory when people leave the house, similar to the treatment for face masks.

READ: Commentary: The systematic testing Singapore needs to ditch circuit breakers for good

READ: Commentary: Manual contact tracing still the gold standard for COVID-19 response


Any move towards mandatory use of a token or any particular technology is one not to be taken lightly. One reason why the technology in token form has generated a lot more interest is because a wearable is traditionally perceived as an extension of personality, in closer physical proximity than your mobile phone.

People have said making the carrying of such a token mandatory may also seem overly intrusive especially if coupled with the unfounded belief that the token tracks locations or uploads information on its own (which it does not).

Coupled with irrational fear, mandating use of a device will stir up “tin foil hat” responses to try and circumvent the technology. This is hugely counter-productive and would mean a waste of implementation resources.

Mandatory rules also require enforcement which carries a separate cost in itself. Given that the token is a helpful tool for contact tracing, the last thing we want is to devote scarce resources to police such rules.

TraceTogether is a mobile app developed by the Government Technology Agency (GovTech) in collaboration with the Ministry of Health (MOH). (Photo: Hanidah Amin)

Amidst the background of relaxing restrictions as new infections slow down, it would also seem that the urgency to rush the tokens into mandatory use has tapered off.


We are told that at least 75 per cent of the population needs to use the technology in order for it to be effective.

But if we need some people to use the technology to prove a use case, how does one get sufficient numbers to use it in the first place? Will making it mandatory solve the problem? Perhaps – but the catch is - how do you justify it being mandatory without proving the use case?

This conundrum is not a new one – every new app or mobile game introduced faces the challenge of not only getting the app to work properly but also to make the app "viral" – where users will not only install and use the app without much prompting but will in fact encourage their contacts to do the same. That is the reason why only one in one thousand start-ups make it.

This is the chicken and egg problem for the Government – do you wait for the technology to become widespread to prove its efficacy or do you make it mandatory from the outset? Is being mandatory the only way to make it widespread?

READ: Commentary: How to make Singapore smile for the facial recognition camera


Before we go steaming down that path, perhaps consider this familiar example. By all measure, the Health Promotion Board's (HPB) Healthy 365 programme is a success – almost 2 million people have activated their app and synced their devices.

Even though the sign up process was rather tedious and the aim of the programme was not really life-threatening, Singaporeans have adopted this with gusto even though it tracks and collects a lot more data.

By the use of small challenges, the tracking of various metrics steps and checking in at certain locations and providing people with small rewards for achieving little targets, the HPB has created the desired action without people feeling forced to do so. That is the process of gamification– to direct desired behaviour without having to order it.

READ: Commentary: Contact tracing apps can learn a trick or two from fitness trackers

Tourists pass by a flag-raising ceremony at Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Hall in Taipei, Taiwan, Mar 11, 2020. (File photo: REUTERS/Ann Wang) FILE PHOTO: Tourists wear protective face masks to protect themselves from coronavirus disease (COVID-19) while passing by a flag rising ceremony at Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Hall in Taipei, Taiwan, March 11, 2020. REUTERS/Ann Wang/File Photo

When the Taiwanese government introduced its general goods and services tax, they faced a problem in getting smaller businesses to pay the tax and issue receipts that reflect the tax value.

Its solution was to introduce a national lottery based on the receipts that had been issued. Every tax receipt printed would be an entry ticket to the national lottery sponsored by the government. In the first year the tax collection went up by 75 per cent, more than covering the cost of the lottery.

Over the years the lottery prize money has been increased but these still dwarf the amount collected.

In addition, enforcement costs are minimal because businesses are happy to issue receipts and consumers ask for receipts. As an added bonus, receipts are no longer indiscriminately discarded because people dutifully collect their receipts for submission to the lottery.

These are good examples of the use of gamification to solve a real world problem. I am certain our planners will be able to do the same to bring up the usage levels of TraceTogether without mandating its use. The question it would seem is whether we have the luxury of time to do so.

BOOKMARK THIS: Our comprehensive coverage of the coronavirus outbreak and its developments

Download our app or subscribe to our Telegram channel for the latest updates on the coronavirus outbreak:

Bryan Tan is partner at law firm Pinsent Masons and a former Singapore chapter president of the Internet Society.

Source: CNA/el


Also worth reading