The Answer: It’s Complicated

The Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) recently revealed that the total costs associated with the ArriveCAN app are expected to hit $54 million by March 2023 when the project period is set to end.

ArriveCAN is the mobile application launched during COVID to help CBSA track the test results and proof of vaccination of people entering Canada. Use of the app is now optional and offers the option to save time at certain airports by submitting their customs and immigration declarations in advance.

If you’re like many Canadians, you probably saw $54 million and thought, “What?! How?!”

$54 million is a lot of money. So, I’m not surprised that the figure had many people up in arms, especially given the controversy already associated with the app. Recently, two Toronto tech companies built clones of the app for a mere fraction of the price and in extremely short timeframes–one recreated it during a weekend hackathon.

Of course, this further shocked and angered many Canadians.

The knowledge we have because of the work we do at 14 Oranges meant we didn’t have exactly the same reaction as the average Canadian. Our immediate reactions were:

  1. Curiosity. We wanted to see a breakdown of the $54 million costs.
  2. “It’s not that simple,” when we heard about the cloned versions of the app created on short timelines and small budgets.

There are a few reasons why.

Way More Than App Development

“Government Spends $54 Million on Mobile App” is a great headline if you’re trying to grab people’s attention. But, it’s not exactly accurate.

At 14 Oranges, when we saw this huge figure, we wanted to know more. Just like the average person, I think $54 million is a huge amount of money, but as somebody who works in mobile app development, I knew there must be more to the story.

So we dug in.

It turns out, beyond app development, the $54 million also included $7.5 million for a call centre that fielded over 645,000 calls, $5.3 million for data management, $4.6 million on vaccine credential authentication, plus millions spent on cloud hosting, IT systems, tech support, accessibility, cybersecurity, and more.

The actual app development for the initial version of the ArriveCAN app?

$8,880,000, which includes $80,000 for the very first version and the updates required for the over 70 releases of the app that were needed as COVID restrictions and requirements continuously changed.

$54 million is a massive figure. But it’s important to recognize that the actual development of an app of this sort is just one small piece of a massive project. Updating, maintaining and supporting its use accounted for the bulk of the attention-grabbing $54 million headline figure.

Is $54 Million Too Much to Spend On a Mobile App?

Tight Timelines, Lots of Unknowns, and Constant Change

Luckily the worst of the COVID pandemic seems to be behind us – hopefully for most of us, it’s slowly fading from our memories. But think back to early 2020. People were living in fear and uncertainty. ArriveCAN’s development wasn’t planned for, developed or built during ideal times. In fact, it was probably the worst of times.

For better or worse, the government was trying to keep pace with an ever-changing pandemic world. The planning that would normally go into building a government app likely didn’t happen. CBSA needed a solution and needed it fast.

Knowing what I know now about COVID restrictions, it’s easy for me to say that CBSA probably would have been better off building an app that allowed them to manage the content using a content management system (CMS). That way, as COVID restrictions and Canadian entry/exit policies continuously changed, they could have easily made updates that didn’t require a push to the App Store or Google Play.

But maybe a CMS-type platform would have taken more time to build or had its own challenges associated with it. At the time, with the information we had, the decision-makers likely moved forward with the solution they could launch the fastest.

Hindsight is 2020

This leads to perhaps the biggest factor to consider before jumping to conclusions about ArriveCAN’s costs.
Hindsight is 2020. It’s easy to be sitting in a busy restaurant, unmasked, without having had to think about a vaccine passport in ages and say, “They should have done it this way or that way.”

Two Toronto tech companies recreating the app in a matter of days is impressive. But we can’t compare their development to that of the ArriveCAN app. Once we have all of the additional knowledge that several years of pandemic and post-pandemic living have given us plus the learnings the original development team went through to build the original, we’re no longer comparing apples to apples.

The Invisible Work

Thinking about this story, I’m transported back to my time as a programmer. At one point, I spent over an entire week writing a piece of software. I didn’t commit the work to our repository (rookie move, I know!), my computer was stolen when our office was broken into overnight and my work was gone.

After begrudgingly accepting my hard work was lost, I marched into the office on Saturday, sat down and proceeded to rewrite all of the code in just a few hours.

How was this possible? Well, I had already encountered and found solutions for all of the problems I couldn’t have foreseen until I started working. I ran tasks, realized that something didn’t work and then went back to the code and updated it with a solution.

All of the thinking, problem-solving, and reconfiguring I did throughout the week put me in an entirely different place when I went back in on Saturday. This kind of work is invisible to the user of an app or software. You would only notice if this work wasn’t done and you encountered a bug or problem when using the product.

It’s Like Renovating Your House

Imagine you’re renovating your kitchen. You do your research, visit different stores, and speak with different designers and contractors. You argue about cupboard choices and colours and if you should finally get a gas stove. It’s a painful process with lots of unexpected changes, but eventually, your dream kitchen is complete. Everything is exactly as you wanted it.

Unfortunately, a fire destroys the kitchen shortly after it’s completed. You decide you want to rebuild it exactly as you just renovated it. The process this time around is totally different. You already know what works and what doesn’t. There are no discussions or arguments. You just tell the contractor exactly what you want and they build it.

Recreating or cloning an existing app is very similar for an app developer to you rebuilding your dream kitchen. They already know what features are needed and how they need to function together. The invisible work of solving unexpected problems has already been done. The process is simpler, faster, and inevitably cheaper.

The Importance of a Discovery Phase

When we recently renovated our own kitchen, the designer came to our home and asked us dozens of questions about our expectations, what we didn’t like about the current kitchen, what appliances we regularly used, and more. She also took extensive measurements of everything and factored space for furniture and our family’s daily habits into her final plan.

At 14 Oranges, the app development equivalent of our designer’s home visit would be our discovery phase. Fortunately, most of our clients are not building apps that need to launch in response to a global pandemic. While some of them do have tighter timelines, we still make as much time as possible to go through a discovery phase.

Depending on the project, the discovery phase could be a few hours or several days. The goal of this phase is to clearly understand the problems the client wants to solve with the app or software and, most importantly, try to uncover any features they need but didn’t realize or any potential challenges we might face.

While this takes time upfront, it means we can develop the best solution with the fewest unexpected costs for our clients.

This upfront time was something CBSA and the Canadian government were short on when they were rushing to launch ArriveCAN.

A Talented Tech Community

I don’t know the details of the ArriveCAN project intimately enough to say too much was spent with complete certainty. In hindsight, it’s obvious that there were probably cheaper, more efficient ways to do things.

Ultimately, though, there are too many differentiating factors to be able to compare the work TribalScale and Lazer Technologies’ teams did during the ‘hackathons’ to clone ArriveCAN. It’s also worth noting the publicity each company received by building look-alike apps.

Beyond marketing and publicity, however, each company expressed a desire to show the government and the Canadian public the incredible talent that exists in our tech community.

“We hope this demonstrates that there are extremely talented engineers, designers, product managers, and consultants out there who are capable of delivering outstanding work in an efficient manner,” Lazer Technologies said in a statement. “We hope the government takes this into account for the future as considering more diverse technical partners in Canada for their projects.”

At 14 Oranges, we hope this too.

Sylvain Marcotte is CEO and President of 14 Oranges.

Is $54 Million Too Much to Spend On a Mobile App?