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South Australia bins emergency alert app, contract

Software couldn't tell when its own arse was on fire

The South Australian State government has announced it will end its contract with Victorian company Ripe Intelligence after an app intended to provide "real-time, relevant and personalised event and warning information" repeatedly failed to do so.

A weekend heatwave put South Australia on the highest level of bushfire alert, “catastrophic”, but the "Alert SA" app failed to warn residents of several bushfires burning in the state's southeast.

Ripe Intelligence first delivered the app to the South Australian state government in 2015 under an AU$250,000 annual contract. Government endorsement saw the app win around 170,000 users.

Problems first emerged in October 2017, when the app failed due to what emergency services minister Chris Picton called a “data error”. At the time, 43 fires burned across the state, some of which threatened property.

Picton called that outage “unacceptable”, but said the failure was attributable to data from government agencies rather than problems with the app itself.

The app was updated in December but last weekend failed twice during “catastrophic”-rated bushfire conditions.

Android users hit the app's Google Play page to complain, with nearly all of them saying the December update broke the app.

User comments included:

  • ”I wont be relying on this app to help me because it doesn't get past the loading screen”;
  • ”When I try to set a location zone it just keeps crashing”;
  • One plausibly noted an external dependency, writing “for some reason the developers thought it would be a great idea to not allow the app to open unless it connects to some domain”.
  • I can see a huge grass fire from my front door and the CFS website has a warning for it but the app says no current incidents … the app keeps saying no data sources”.

That was two failures too many, and Picton told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation the government would no longer support the app.

“On the day when South Australians faced the worst fire danger conditions seen in years, the Alert SA app needed to perform and it didn't,” he said.

“I am not satisfied after meeting with [provider] Ripe Intelligence that the failure experienced yesterday won't be repeated and I and our emergency services have lost confidence in this app to provide the 99.9 per cent reliability as is stipulated in our contract”.

The contract will be allowed to expire in June, when it is next due for renewal, and Picton told ABC Radio: “We will no longer be giving advice to people to use the Alert SA app … we've seen, unfortunately, the unreliability of it”.

South Australians will still be able to get bushfire information from the Country Fire Service Website, the state's emergency alert system, emergency services social media pages, and ABC radio alerts. ®

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