[COVIDWatch]: Did work on the TraceTogether app start back in December 2019?

By November 4, 2021 COVID-19, Health, Technology

We came across this post on Facebook:

The author of the post shares two screenshots, one purportedly taken from the Google Play Store, and another taken from GovTech Singapore’s website.

In the caption, the author first prefixes what is shared by saying that this “might be controversial and sound like [a] conspiracy theory”.

The author pointed out that according to the Google Play Store screenshot, the TraceTogether app was released in February 2020. However, according to the screenshot from GovTech Singapore’s website, it was revealed that the app was created “within 8 weeks”.

The author then said that if one were to work backwards, it would suggest that the team behind the TraceTogether app started the project in December 2019. The author added that to commission a team to begin work in December 2019, “the project might had been in the planning phase a few weeks or months before”, and insinuates that due to this, the “govt already knew there’s a pandemic…er plandemic, but act blur and die die need a GE (General Election last year” (sic).

Time travelling to the start of the pandemic in Singapore

To break this claim down, we’ll need to do a little time travelling ourselves.

The first case of COVID-19 in Singapore – a 66-year-old Chinese national from Wuhan who arrived in Singapore on 20 January, was confirmed on 23 January 2020.

However, it is important to note that as early as 31 December 2019, a cluster of “severe pneumonia cases in Wuhan” was reported to the World Health Organisation, and the Singapore Ministry of Health (MOH) mentioned on 2 January 2020 that it was aware of these cases, and “will screen all inbound travellers from Wuhan from the evening of 3 January”.

In the days following up to the first confirmed case, MOH had taken further precautions like expanding temperature screening to all travellers coming in from China, keeping track of suspect cases, and isolating individuals at high risk. The multi-ministry task force was also formed on 22 January 2020.

The origins of TraceTogether

In a report published last year by CNA, we read that TraceTogether was launched on 20 March 2020, and was described to “support ongoing contact tracing efforts amid the COVID-19 outbreak in Singapore”. We also read that the app was “developed by the Government Technology Agency (GovTech) in collaboration with MOH over the past eight weeks”.

We managed to find the page from which the screenshot posted by the author was taken from. In the page, we read that the app was indeed “developed in an eight-week sprint”.

When we visited the app’s Google Play Store page on desktop, we didn’t see any mention of the release date:

However, when we did a check on an Android phone, we saw that there was indeed “16 Feb 2020” listed as the release date:

Our checks on another Android phone and an Android tablet also revealed the release date to be 16 February 2020.

To make things even more puzzling, when we did a check of the app using AppBrain, which provides detailed information about apps listed on the Google Play Store, we see that the earliest entry to the change log was dated 19 March 2020:

The earliest blog entry by the TraceTogether team regarding updates on the app was dated 24 March 2020:

“Work on TraceTogether started on 24 Jan 2020”

When we reached out to GovTech for clarification, we were directed to a reply on the Facebook post by Jason Bay, Senior Director, Government Digital Services at GovTech.

In his reply, he clarified that the date that a “prototype version of an app is first submitted for approval, and the date that the app is launched to the public, are two different things”. He added that work on TraceTogether started 24 January 2020 – one day after the first case of COVID-19 in Singapore was confirmed.

A GovTech representative clarified in a call with us that 16 February 2020 was the date that the first prototype version of the app was submitted to Google Play Store for Google’s review and approval. Further improvements were made before the official launch of the app on 20 March 2020 — 8 weeks after work on the app began, following the first reported COVID-19 case in Singapore on 23 January 2020.

Therefore, while it is true that 16 February 2020 was the date that the first prototype version of the app was submitted to the Google Play Store, it is false that work on the TraceTogether app started in December 2019, way before the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed in Singapore.

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