11th March 2022
Delivering apps and exploring innovative technologies
We have developed the UK’s first COVID symptom checker to the new COVID-19 certification apps CovidCertNI and CertCheckNI for the Department of Health NI.
But did you know that it was a hackathon that laid the foundations for the COVID vaccine app?
Our Principal Engineer, Andrew Fletcher, discusses how the hackathon gave our team of developers and mobile experts new technologies to share with our customers.
- Tell us about the hackathon that started the journey to the CovidCertNI app?
Andrew: In our team in Belfast, we have a strong culture of innovation and a desire to look at how we can do things better. Historically we have explored many new technologies through hackathons and a lot of our current work has resulted from our engagement with innovation. We have been working closely with colleagues in HSCNI since the launch of the Covid Care app and looking at a few areas where we continue to help in the response to the pandemic.
Around the world there is growing interest in the use of apps to manage vaccine status and this timed really well with our planned hackathon themed around helping the elderly and the vulnerable in our community. We took the idea of the vaccine passport into the hackathon where were able to really explore it as a team of back-end developers and mobile experts. Looking at how to extend from the covid care app and bring in booking management and status and how it could work end to end.
- How did you get from the concept that came out of the hackathon to a contract with the Northern Ireland government?
Andrew: We've been having regular conversations with customers about how we could help. The hackathon gave us something practical to demo. It provided us with credibility in this area and helped drive the conversation. It can make an enormous difference to be able to say, "Here's something we've been working on, what do you think?"
It took a while to develop, but the customer knew that we had hands-on experience in this area. Because of the hackathon, we were able to build the team and get going very quickly. We had already done the thinking about how all the bits would need to fit together so that stand-up time was minimal.
- Where there any moments in the project journey that frustrated you?
Andrew: We developed in three separate parts: booking vaccines, recording vaccine status, and citizens showing vaccination status.
It presented some practical challenges in the design – how to pull through data about a person’s vaccination record to display their status when data management systems are separate. The problem of matching people to their records gave us a lot of work to do and led to some interesting discussions. There are often challenges related to building a practical production system that you overlook in a hackathon project. So, the difference in where you thought you would get to and what’s possible in the time can be frustrating.
- How do you feel about what has been achieved?
Andrew: I'm absolutely proud of it. For the whole team, it's been fantastic to work on something that's had that level of impact. We have increased our skills and delivered something useful. To date we've issued over 270,000 vaccination statuses. That's people who are now able to go out, go traveling, see family. People who are engaging in their community. Also, as a result of the work done with CCS we've also been able explore more work in the in the Northern Irish digital identity space. The vaccine app has driven more people to engage with digital identity because there was a value to them for doing so. As a result, there is now a 10x increase in people who are now and able to use digital services online. There's an ambition now to keep doing really good work in this space.
To date, the team’s verified and issued over 900,000 people their COVID-19 certificates, with 1.33 million downloading their mobile apps.