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The HSE's Covid-19 contact tracing app Niall Carson via PA Images
covid app

Why was the Covid-19 app so successful in Ireland?

HSE CEO Paul Reid called the Irish roll out the “most successful launch of this app anywhere in the world”

IRISH HEALTH OFFICIALS have been caught by surprise at the initial success of the Covid-19 tracker app. With over one million downloads and counting, an app designed by the Irish state is now an everyday feature of people’s lives – so how did it happen?

The Chief Executive of the HSE, Paul Reid, called the Irish roll out the “most successful launch of this app anywhere in the world”. And he has a theory why. “I kind of had a sense,” he told reporters on Tuesday.

“We’ve embraced, not just technology, but many aspects. Whether that’s the euro or non-smoking,” he said, Ireland is pretty good at adopting new things. 

The sheer popularity of the app would seem to suggest that Reid is not entirely wrong. With over one million downloads in a population of approximately 4.7 million, the take-up rate of the app is nearly 25% if people below 16 – who aren’t permitted to download the app – are excluded. 

That proportion is higher still if the eldest or most vulnerable, who wouldn’t be expected to download or use the app, are excluded. 

In Germany, a country widely seen to have made a success of handling the pandemic, app downloads reached 6.5 million in the first 24 hours when it launched in mid-June – a figure that’s around 8% of the country’s population. 

The latest figures for the German app – which, unlike South Korea’s version, uses the same Bluetooth technology as the Ireland – show that 15 million people have so far registered. That’s still a small proportion in a country with 83 million people. 

Even in Singapore, where the TraceTogether app was lauded as pioneering at the start the crisis, only 2.1 million people have signed up, according to government figures. 

“What we’ve seen in Ireland is that people generally have really taken on board the nature of the collective action problem that we’re in at the moment,” says Shane Timmons, from the Behavioural Research Unit at the Economic & Social Research Institute (ESRI). 

“People have been very willing to take on inconveniences and slight sacrifices in order to benefit the larger group. We saw massive levels of compliance with lockdown, for example, when the restrictions were put in.”

Timmons thinks that attitude has carried over into the app. “It’s a very slight inconvenience: you just download an app onto your phone. One of the things that was done quite well with this app was how they addressed the privacy concerns,” he says. 

“We know from some research that we’ve done that even with some privacy concerns, people think that the benefits of this app outweigh those concerns. They’re acting in favour of the collective, even when there’s a slight expense on their part.”

This doesn’t fully explain, however, why the Irish experience of the app has been so different from that of other countries.

001 App The main page of the Covid-19 contact tracing app Leah Farrell Leah Farrell

App-y relationships

Ireland’s relationship with new technology has never been heralded as a defining character trait. Neither has prevalence of Facebook, Google and other tech giants in Dublin’s docklands turned us into a nation of technophiles. 

When it comes to something like smartphone usage, we’re pretty average in fact. In 2018, 77% of 16-74 year-olds reported owning a smartphone – a figure that puts Ireland somewhere in the typical range of phone ownership for developed countries. 

This doesn’t necessarily suggest that the country was ripe to be early adopters of a state-backed app. While some state-backed apps are hugely popular – the Dublin Bus app reached 1.99 million downloads in 2018 – the rate of uptake of the Covid-19 app is unprecedented. 

Speaking to, Maynooth University’s Dr Aphra Kerr, an expert on technology and society noted that, yes, there has been a high level of downloads of the app, but that the uptake rate in the use of the app isn’t yet clear. 

Echoing Timmons’ comments above, Kerr said: “I think people in general have shown a pretty good community spirit and do things in the public interest [during the lockdown]. 

“But there’s also a little bit of self interest here because this may help people to move [around] and for the country to open up a little bit more. So, there’s community interest, public interest and self interest going on here.”


But the success of the app might also have less to do with the national character than the geography and population dynamics of Ireland. 

When it comes to considering the environmental impact of everyday decisions – a much more onerous task than downloading an app and switching on Bluetooth – parents with young children are often quite committed to pursuing greener options, according to Central Statistics Office figures.

Given that in 2016 there were close to one million families with children in Ireland, combined with the small size of the country, Ireland might have a head start when it comes to the civic responsibility involved in an app that tracks a dangerous virus. 

Add to that the fact Ireland has one of the youngest populations in Europe and it might perhaps be less of a surprise that downloads have rocketed.

When asked whether she thinks there is a link between downloads of the app and the fact that Ireland is a small country with a young population, Kerr said that it’s a possibility. 

Future of app

As outlined above, Kerr stressed that the download rate of the app has been successful, but that it’s too early to tell whether people will continue to use it. 

So, is it likely the app’s success will continue? 

“There’ll be a difference between downloads, and even people who start to use it, and then whether people continue to use it or [whether] there’s a drop off after they just figure out how it works,” Kerr said. 

“So there’s probably three stages here. Downloads, great, we seem to have done pretty good on this and it seems to be growing, so that’s good. The second thing, the thing we don’t yet really know anything about is are people starting to use it,” she said. 

“Then, it would be interesting to see is there a drop off … and do people respond? If you get an alert saying that you had been in the presence of somebody who may have been affected [by Covid-19], do you then act on that information?” she added. 

“It will be very interesting to see how effective it is in terms of actual behavioural change or prompting people to go get tested.”

With reporting by Hayley Halpin and Stephen McDermott

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