Love it or Hate it, Ukraine’s Self-Isolation App "Diy Vdoma" Already Has 200K Users. And a Few Bugs
29 July, 2020
A phone showing Diy Vdoma's "missed notification" message to indicate that a person has failed to verify their location. Maria Romanenko

It's been three months since Ukraine launched "Diy Vdoma" ("Act at Home"), an app used to track people returning from the coronavirus "red-zone" countries. Some may say it's a clever, innovative solution that the West should take on board, others – mostly those who have used this app – will complain that it infringes on their freedom. 

Hromadske spoke with two people who recently traveled to Ukraine from the U.S. and Belarus to hear what their issues with the app were. And then addressed these and other common problems to the "Diy Vdoma" developers. 

“Diy Vdoma” is a Ukrainian mobile app designed to ease the 14-day isolation that is compulsory for returnees and visitors from the countries that are located in the “red zone” due to the number of coronavirus cases there. These travelers are given by the government the choice between going through a 14-day observation at a hotel (at the travelers' own expense) or self-isolating at home with “Diy Vdoma.”

If a person returning from the "red zone" does a PCR coronavirus test that comes back negative, they are freed from self-isolation early.

Head of Freedom House Ukraine, Matthew Schaaf, returned from the United States in July.

"A lot of people [at the airport] were not as prepared as I was –​ they hadn't downloaded the app, and so on. So they had to install the app on their phone, right when they were talking to the border agent. And I saw that some elderly folks, for example, seemed to have some problems with that. But I got through just fine. And I had already scheduled my PCR tests for the following day. So I could get that result in and not do the self-isolation anymore. 

The app is super frustrating to use. For a while, actually, I didn't get any request to take photos. But then I did. 

You have to turn your head to the right and to the left and do this (tilts his head -ed.) and blink your eyes. And, and you keep doing it, and you do it and do it. And it gives you an error message saying, 'you didn't do it right.' And so that was one aspect that I found kind of annoying. 

Fortunately, I understand Ukrainian. But for people who don't, that would be really difficult because it's entirely in Ukrainian. And it's kind of surprising how a country like Ukraine that has so much IT talent... and making a simple Android app isn't all that difficult, as well as adding translations to it. So I'm very curious why they haven't been able to add English to it yet. 

There were some other strange situations where I would go through the [verification] process, it would say that I have the option to click to submit the photo that I took and it would say, 'you don't have a connection to the internet', when, of course, I did. And I was receiving emails and going to websites and all of those things. And then, at the same time, I would receive a message saying, 'you are violating the quarantine,' yet I was trying to submit the information and it was telling me I didn't have access to the internet. And this happened a few times. And then, all of a sudden, I would get three messages very quickly saying, 'we've received your information.' Things like this make you want to do a facepalm."

Belarusian human rights activist Andrej Stryzhak arrived in Ukraine and after 5 days with “Diy Vdoma” gave up on it and took a PCR test.

“I once had a situation where I received a notification that I had to take a selfie. I did that and went to the shower with peace of mind. 20 minutes later, I found that there were already 5 messages asking me to verify.

How to be in such a situation? If this is strict observance of the rules, then the police had to come and drag me out of the shower so that I could be verified.

The program, of course... I understand why it is needed, but there are a lot of such nuances, and answers to them are not particularly there.

After 5 days of this regime, I realized that it was impossible to work in it. There are a lot of restrictions and I decided to take the PCR test. "

Yevhen Gorbachev, the head of the software development department at the Ministry of Digital Transformation, who is actually responsible for the "Act at Home" application, explained some of the problems with the app.

Hromadske: Do you consider "Diy Vdoma" a success?

Yevhen Gorbachev: You know, when it’s the question of people's lives, it's hard to evaluate whether something is a success or not. We had the task to release an application in 5 days, and we did it. People were given the opportunity not to do [hotel] observation, but to be at home. And almost 200+ thousand people did self-isolation with our application. Successfully did it, there were no problems. Yes, of course, someone had some situations that they were uncomfortable with, someone didn't like something. But people remained in self-isolation. If a person is infected, they could infect a lot of people in the city. And, if you put it into numbers, if 200,000 people who could have potentially been infected went through this incubation period, then I think we have reduced the spread.

The head of Ukraine's software development department at the Ministry of Digital Transformation, Yevhen Gorbachev, speaks to Hromadske on July 21 in Kyiv, Ukraine. Photo: Screenshot from a video

H: Many people wonder why there is no English version?

YG: In the beginning, the requirements clearly stated that this was an application for Ukrainians. And the question arises, why give Ukrainians another language?

Now we hear feedback that English needs to be added. A solution for foreigners is now being planned so that the interface could be switched [into English]. We are not saying that this is technically impossible. Of course, for any project you need to allocate resources, plan it, and implement it. Now the team is working on "Diya," our main project. So this just needs to be planned.

“Diy Vdoma” is just a tool to identify possible self-isolation violations. Period. We do not control, we do not issue fines.

H: You are talking about minimizing the spread. But a person is given 24 hours to reach the point of self-isolation. The application also works from 9 to 9, so after 9 p.m. the person can go somewhere, like a bar…

YG: Firstly, we do not have the right to wake a person up at night and make checks. And, of course, a person must also be organized and responsible for what they do. We don't issue electronic bracelets; "Diy Vdoma" does not track geolocation constantly. We only take the geolocation at the time the photo is taken. That's all. We do not have constant information about where the person is. That is, when a person takes a photo, then goes 30 meters to the right and takes a photo again, we see their geolocation at those two points. We do not know where the person was between the two points.

H: You say you have no right to wake people up. But there are people who arrive from the United States and work in a different time zone. That is, they work at night and sleep during the day. How should this work for them?

YG: Well, they live in Ukraine. In Ukraine, the working hours are 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. I do not understand the question. We can't adjust to this person. It is very difficult to adapt to everyone individually.

You see, when we develop an application – a mobile application "Diya" or "Diy Vdoma" – we face a difficult task: to include the whole of Ukraine. Absolutely all segments of the population, all mobile phones: from the simplest Android to the latest iPhone. These are different devices, they have different technologies and capabilities. And our task is to unify the development in such a way that it suits everyone. Therefore, if we analyze the case as to what time we can disturb people, we usually take 99.9%. And if 0.1% falls under the spectrum that they work in another time zone, then, sorry, you have to adjust. You came from abroad, you can potentially infect people, you have to look after yourself. And actually, comply with the rule of law.

A promotional picture released by "Diy Vdoma" developers.

H: I've heard from app users that there are a lot of software bugs. For example, a person cannot verify themselves. The application did not like something and says "do it again". Or the application does not recognize the person. Or the app states that there is no internet, although emails arrive and you can go to the sites...

YG: When a person breaks the verification chain, they must go through it again. Therefore, it is worth doing it all correctly once. When we released the app, we tested it on older people, even retirees, and also on children. The task was like this: so that both the pensioner and the child could calmly understand what to do. We managed that: the child completed [the verification chain], the pensioner did it – happy days. So you just have to follow these steps. There is nothing complicated there.

As for the fact that the application does not recognize a person – I will explain how it works. First, we take the photo, then in the server part, the reference photo which was made the first time when the person arrived is processed. This photo is taken and compared by dots, this is a very fine technology. And if there is too much light in the photo you took, that is, if you are standing behind a window and the sun is shining brightly, and you may have one part of your face overexposed, then, of course, there will be a recognition error.

Or often people take photos for some reason from below. And, of course, when a person lies down, their face changes a little. Therefore, there may be situations when there is a request for another verification.

Regarding notifications about the absence of the internet or incorrect geolocation recognition – this happens when a person hides a GPS or uses a VPN.

There is a 15-minute window during which you have to do the verification. Every 3 minutes a new notification arrives so that the person doesn’t miss it. Every 3 minutes, so 5 times in 15 minutes, we give a notification. The last notification states that you have violated the terms of the quarantine. And it is only after this notification that the police are notified.

H: Don't you think it's stressful for a person to receive so many notifications when they just went to the shower, for example?

YG: There were technical requirements. We responded to them. When it comes to whether we think something… Well, it seems to me that the spread of the coronavirus is more stressful for the whole country than when the police call someone and ask "are you at home?" The person will say, "yes, I'm home, come, check."

H: Are you planning to improve the application?

YG: We are improving the security part so that people cannot cheat the application, but we do not plan any other changes.

H: I will return to the question of the English language. Is translating the application really going to take so long?

YG: Any product, if you translate it, must be tested. There are links with address directories, and directories also need to be translated – the Ministry of Justice publishes directories in Ukrainian. Therefore, this is a difficult task. To make a drop-down directory with addresses, you need to integrate with some directory and do everything to make this integration clear. There are many nuances to every step you are used to.

H: Is there a timeline for the English version? Will it be released in the next couple of months?

YG: I think so.

/By Maria Romanenko