Open source, open mind: get techies to fix pandemic apps

September 27, 2021 | 01:32 am PT
Duong Ngoc Thai Cybersecurity engineer
I have been working in the tech industry for nearly 20 years, but I was still sweating trying to register on the National Vaccination Portal to get my father vaccinated.

My aged father knows how to use a smartphone, but he is not very good at it. He couldn't register on his own, so I had to help.

This happened early last month. I finished filling in the information and found it quite convenient, but then the vaccination portal requested that I "confirm the phone number." A code was sent to my father's smartphone, which I must enter correctly to complete the registration.

I called my father from overseas and asked him for the code to enter on the portal. "What code, son?" my father asked, confused. Father had never entered an OTP code for online transactions. I took some time to explain the process to him. I pressed the "resend code" button multiple times and my father's phone still didn't receive any code. Each time a new code was sent, the system only gave two minutes to enter it.

Eventually, I decided to register using a different phone number, thinking I would explain what happened if anyone asked.

A month on, no one has called my father for his vaccination shot. Fortunately, he has already received the first dose after registering directly with the local neighborhood association using a technology as old as the hills, namely pen and paper. I have just looked up my father's information on the National Vaccination Portal, and the website said: "no result found."

I'm an information security engineer, but my job is not simply to make the products safe. It is to make them both safe and easy to use. I spend a lot of time thinking about the user experience, about how to make it fast and convenient but still safe. I often tell my colleagues that if my mother, and now my father too, cannot use it, the product's design is not okay.

Many years ago, Gmail used to require users to re-enter their passwords every few weeks for security reasons. We observed that each time it happened, a large number of users left and never came back since they'd forgotten their passwords. My mother was one such case. Since then, Gmail has not been requiring regular password inputs for a long time, and we engineers had to come up with other options to protect users.

I think the National Vaccination Portal must have a reason to require users to "verify phone number." But not everybody who wants to be vaccinated has a mobile phone, and even if they did, not all of them would understand "confirmation code sent via SMS."

I learnt later that the service provider had locked my father's SIM card so he couldn't receive the texts.

If the national vaccination portal still wants to verify phone numbers, a more user-friendly solution would be calling rather than texting. However, even better option would be to figure out whether it's possible to remove phone number verification and still achieve data requirements. The design criterion must be that the more steps that can be removed the better, not adding as many steps as possible.

While I have mentioned the National Vaccination Portal, the problem is not unique to this website. To write this piece, I tried installing a series of Vietnam's "anti-epidemic" apps. I found that having multiple apps was fine, and people were willing to install several different apps as long as they all ran well, were easy to use, safe, ensured privacy, and, most importantly, served the needs of every social class.

I emphasize the needs part because I found that some apps appear to be created to serve the needs of the government rather than the people. The people's needs are very simple: be vaccinated, travel and receive welfare and unemployment support. The question is not what app can I create, but what do the people need?

Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh has recently instructed government ministries and sectors to agree on one anti-epidemic application. Some people have raised the idea of a "super app" by Vietnam for the country to "go out to the world." But really, we are not building a rocket to go to the moon, for we just need a bicycle to travel around the village. Of course, to make a good bicycle, we still need skills.

The good news is that Vietnam has hundreds of thousands of software engineers and experts. Domestically, there are already apps and websites with tens of millions of users, which means many are already capable of building "cars" not just "bikes." The world's tech giants are also not short of Vietnamese employees.

Skilled people already have good jobs, usually; and usually, the government has no way to attract them. Covid, however, is a different matter. Having to install so many apps, each of which still has bugs, the techies would feel frustrated and would be itching to work on them. If they're given an opportunity, I believe many would jump in and scratch their itches.

A woman is instructed to a spot to fill in forms to receive Covid-19 vaccine at a vaccination point in Hanoi, July 22, 2021. Photo by VnExpress

A woman is instructed to a spot to fill in forms to receive Covid-19 vaccine at a vaccination point in Hanoi, July 22, 2021. Photo by VnExpress

Not counterintuitive, really

How can the government create that opportunity? The answer, I believe, lies in open source codes and an open mind.

Open source software movement is one of the innovations behind the tech world's great success over the past few decades.

There is no industry like the software industry, where companies eagerly publicize their intellectual properties and allow everyone, including competitors, to reference, reuse and improve on all of their innovative creations without taking a penny. While it may sound counterintuitive, this is how they grow together, helping everyone move faster.

Most of the internet's backbone is open source software, or developed based on open source software. These very lines that you are reading are also created and delivered to your computer using such software. Without exaggeration, if not for open source cultural innovation, we probably wouldn't have the Internet as we have it today.

Therefore, first of all, instead of discussing issues behind closed doors and working quietly, the government must require that the agencies implementing the national information system open their source codes, their designs and widely publicize their development plans.

When this is done, anyone who sees that something isn't satisfactory can freely participate in fixing bugs and developing new features. This is the way to stimulate creativity and contribution from everyone, especially those with highly specialized skills.

Last year, when flooding devastated the central region, a group of young programmers quickly created an open source project called "Rescue the Central Region," attracting the participation of Vietnamese engineers from around the world. Together, they contributed ideas and improved the website.

Many engineers working for rival companies sat down together and worked for the sake of their compatriots.

Or, just a few days ago, a friend of mine working at Amazon discovered a rudimentary security hole in Hanoi's travel permit-generating app, which allowed anyone to create fake travel permits. If the app's design had been widely publicized from the start, such holes could have been discovered and prevented early. Like a house, it's always easier to fix issues while it's still on the drawing board than after it's built.

And like many other innovation movements, the open source movement has also had its ups and downs. Bluezone was probably the first open source software product by a government agency, but a half-baked approach caused it to go nowhere despite receiving a lot of input from the community.

I am someone who specializes in finding vulnerabilities in other people's software. When I first switched to developing open source software, I was very worried that I'd be laughed at if I made mistakes. However, I realized that everyone can make mistakes; the important thing is how to handle them. I realized that every time someone pointed out my mistakes, it was an opportunity for me to learn and improve myself and my products.

Therefore, I believe the key is open-mindedness. A leader with an open mind would welcome everyone to join, be willing to make mistakes and to correct them. If the mind is not open enough then even if they claim it's an "open app," it would just be old wine in new bottles, and might create a sense of it just being a formality.

Many years ago, Professor Ngo Quang Hung pointed out that by respecting and encouraging each individual's "freedom to play around," open-mindedness would create a foundation and stimulate limitless creative potential among the community, for it recognizes individual voices in its development process.

The government has talked much about attracting and using talent. While not everyone wants to be an official in the government apparatus, I believe there are still many with the country in their hearts.

Not just in technology, opening the mind and encouraging all capable people to participate in solving the society's major problems is the shortest way to help Vietnam catch up with the world soon.

After all, most innovative changes in the world have come from individuals passionate about a problem they want to solve or an idea they want to implement.

*Duong Ngoc Thai is a cybersecurity engineer. The opinions expressed are his own.

The opinions expressed here are personal and do not necessarily match VnExpress's viewpoints. Send your opinions here.
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