By nearly any metric, Uruguay’s coronavirus response has been a resounding success. The South American country of 3.5 million has reported under 2,400 cases and 51 deaths as of mid-October. Experts credit a public health strategy that emphasized frequent testing and telemedicine, rather than lockdowns and restrictions on movement that dominated the responses in other countries.
But behind the scenes, the country’s highly talented tech community deployed a volunteer effort to rapidly create Coronavirus UY, To the public, Coronavirus UY was simply a mobile contact tracing and information application. But to the country’s public health infrastructure this wasn’t just an app – it was a mission-critical pandemic tracking system for an entire country, that was able to orchestrate every important agent in the process.
The development was a near perfect use-case for GeneXus as a low-code platform. Using the GeneXus platform allowed a diverse range of experts to collaborate and provide a full range of input, rather than funnel their expertise through a handful of developers. In other words, the group could focus on solving the problem, not the technology underneath it.
A Solid Public Foundation
Even before the start of the pandemic, Uruguay’s public health infrastructure stood out as one of the best in the world. Health expenditures account for nearly 20 percent of government spending, and the country has double the number of physicians as a percentage of the population than surrounding countries.
Education levels are high in other sectors. Uruguay has one of the largest middle classes in the Americas, at 60 percent. And it consistently ranks for its high degrees of social cohesion and civil society.
All of these factors underscore the context for Uruguay’s coronavirus response. When the pandemic hit, it had the facilities to respond. It also had resources and expertise to optimize the response, along with a political culture that valued a wide range of opinions.
The development of Coronavirus UY included input from both the government and the private sector, with more than 30 companies providing their services. These included the traditional tech community, tasked with developing the app, and the medical community. But the group also received advice from other stakeholders. Privacy advocates were tasked with making sure communications and records were safe and secure. Logistics experts and medical testing professionals provided input on which resources were available. Writers created scripts for chatbots and automated responses. Accessibility advocates were tasked with ensuring the application was available, functional, and usable to the widest range of people, no matter what type of smartphone they used or whether they had a disability. And there were dozens of other factors that influenced the capabilities of Coronavirus UY.
The question at hand was how to integrate all of this expertise and education into an application while producing it quickly.
The multidisciplinary approach
In a traditional programming environment, the capabilities of the end-product are a reflection of the talent of the programmer and the limits of the code. It’s true that technological limits sometimes change the goals.
The development of Coronavirus UY meant that experts had to focus on a single goal, without regard to technological limitations. That goal was simple: to prevent the healthcare system from becoming overwhelmed.
The team started out by developing a list of key features that it wanted – an endpoint. In traditional coding environments, a small team of developers would write code, line by line, to achieve that goal.
There are a couple risks with this type of strategy that affect the quality of the product. For one, the programmers might not completely understand the end goal. After all, they don’t have expertise in any of the disciplines that are needed to make this project a success. They may also have a hard time balancing competing demands. Unfortunately, these limitations only become apparent at the end of the development process, when initial prototypes are very close to a finished product. Any changes might have significant waterfall effects across other aspects of the code, adding days and weeks to the development time.
Uruguay, and other nations, did not have days and weeks. The country wanted an app in seven days.
The GeneXus platform circumvents these issues in several ways. First, it allowed users to define goals at the outset, and its environment is geared toward getting users to that endpoint without the need for in-depth coding expertise. This made software development much, much faster. Second, the speed with which features are developed means that developers can engage in rapid prototyping and testing and receive feedback right away. From there, they could make alterations and improvements. This had the benefit of not only being able to include feedback from the diverse group of experts, but also to ensure rapid adoption by Uruguayan citizens.
One of the biggest barriers to any digital product is user adoption and a user experience. When applications are hard to use or hard to understand, people won’t use them. Coronavirus UY generated significant stickiness with the Uruguayan citizenry.
Within the first week of deployment, 195,000 people downloaded Coronavirus UY. Within one month, more than one of every four Uruguyans consulted and reported through the system. This was made easier by the large number of touchpoints the development team designed, which included points of entry across devices, operating systems, and a web interface.
A model for the pandemic
Uruguay’s pandemic success is remarkable, not just for the numbers, but for the way the population altered behavior that is baked into the national character. Friends often greet each other with a kiss on the cheek. And it’s very common to drink mate from communally with a shared straw.
Coronavirus UY cannot take credit for the success of the country’s pandemic response. That credit goes to the healthcare professionals that treated patients, the citizens that wore masks and diligently maintained social distance even though it was uncomfortable, and a government that remained focused on keeping citizens safe.
But Coronavirus UY did leverage the expertise of the nation’s professional class and the quality of its health infrastructure. It helped make sure the government had the most accurate information about the spread of the disease, and helped provide citizens with the medically sound advice about quarantining, testing, and obtaining healthcare. When all is said and done, that is the goal of any technology: to serve people.