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Tech experts give some sympathy to feds over $54M ArriveCAN price tag, but not too much


Entrepreneurs

Tech experts give some sympathy to feds over $54M ArriveCAN price tag, but not too much

Zain Manji’s first reaction when he heard about the ArriveCAN app’s $54 million price tag was sticker shock.

“It was it was shocking to see the total amount dedicated for that project,” Manji, the co-founder of digital product studio Lazer Technologies said.

But his astonishment gave way to empathy as his company cloned the app to see if they could do it faster and cheaper than the federal government. They managed to replicate it over a single weekend.

Despite their speedy duplication, Manji said he still has empathy for the complexity of the task and all the processes that were underway behind the scenes to ensure the application was safe and secure for a country as large as Canada.

But not $54 million worth of empathy.

“I definitely think there can be room for improvement because $54 million to build an app like this is still a lot,” he said.

The app, which until a couple of weeks ago was mandatory for travellers entering Canada, was created during the pandemic to save time going through international borders. Travellers supply their customs and immigration declarations and proof of vaccination to Canada Border Services Agency in advance, however, it was criticized for contributing to delays and creating chaos at airports.

The $54 million price tag was reported in early October by the Globe and Mail which ran an analysis of federal contracts related to the app. It found that the total spending is set to exceed the $54-million mark by March 2023.

The federal government has received significant criticism for the cost of the app, with some also questioning the qualifications of GC Strategies, the company the government outsourced the project to.

This week, MP Taylor Bachrach slammed the government for what he characterized as an exorbitant cost to develop the app.

“Canadians were shocked to learn that the ArriveCAN app cost this government $54 million, that’s more than twice the original estimate. But wait it gets better — last week we learned that most of that money went to a company with no offices and only five staff,” he said, further accusing the government of “using this company to shield sub contractors from accountability and transparency.”

GC Strategies did not respond to a request for comment by publication time. CBSA sent a statement to the Star breaking down the app’s development costs and said many of the expenses were for the overall system.

“ArriveCAN is not a simple information sharing app, it’s a secure transactional tool that used industry standards ‘Smart Health Card’ to verify proof of vaccination, which was needed to protect our communities during COVID-19,” CBSA said.

It says the original cost to develop the initial app was $80,000, but that millions more went toward operating, maintaining and updating the app as well as the platform that supports its operation.

For example, CBSA says it cost $4.5 million for cloud hosting services, $4.6 million on “technical support” for travellers, airlines and airports, and $7.5 million for the Service Canada call centre that provided information on COVID health measures to travellers.

Despite their quick work, Manji acknowledged it was easier and faster for his company to clone the app over a weekend because they already had a blueprint to work from.

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“In the case of ArriveCAN … It’s way easier for us to do that because the actual (user interface) and how the app looks and feels and the experience of it is already figured out for us,” he said.

He said the company that developed the app would likely have had to do additional legwork, such as discussions with users, citizens and other stakeholders to ensure they were delivering the right product.

But he added that it’s possible the government only considered a known “subset of capable people and organizations” and didn’t give enough consideration to startups that may have done the job cheaper and faster.

Arno Jacobsen, a professor of computer science at the University of Toronto, agreed that developing a platform to be used by millions of people is a complex task, but he also questioned the overall price tag.

Some of the numbers that he questioned include $8.8 million to maintain 70 versions of the app over two years.

“Every software has bugs, so that’s normal. But 70 (versions) over two years, that seems like a lot,” he said. “The eight, almost nine million to maintain it, that seems inflated in my opinion.”

He also highlighted the $7.5 million to operate the Service Canada call centre, which CBSA says took more than 645,000 calls between November 2020 and October 2022.

“I don’t know what it costs to run a call centre in Canada or to rent it. But it sounds excessive,” he said.

He questioned the $4.6 million to authenticate and verify travellers’ proof of vaccination credentials, noting that when he travelled, there was no verification other than airline workers looking at the app.

The $4.6 million for cloud-hosting services also seems excessive to him.

“For that amount of money you can buy a lot of hardware and run it yourself,” he said.

But, he also said it’s not the federal government’s job to develop software and gave them credit for developing it relatively quickly during a global pandemic.

“In hindsight, it all looks so obvious. But I don’t think it was that obvious at the time.”

***

CBSA says it costed out $80,000 to develop the initial ArriveCAN app for the Android and iOS platforms, but millions more were spent to operate, maintain and update the app over two years. Here’s the full breakdown of costs:

  • $8.8 million to update the app and website more than 70 times
  • $7.5 million for the Service Canada call centre
  • $5.2 million for data management, which CBSA says was needed to collect, report and monitor COVID border measures and results
  • $4.9 million in “indirect costs,” including employee benefits, accommodations and payments to other government departments
  • $4.6 million to authenticate and verify travellers’ proof of vaccination
  • $4.6 million for cloud hosting (data storage)
  • $4.5 million to build and maintain other IT systems
  • $4.5 million to provide technical support to travellers, airlines and airports
  • $2.3 million to meet “Government of Canada standards” on cybersecurity.
  • $1.7 million to ensure the app was accessible for people with disabilities
  • $1.6 million for internal project management, including legal services, communications support and project co-ordination
  • $3.8 million in contingency funds

Omar Mosleh is an Edmonton-based reporter for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @OmarMosleh

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