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Get Updates on COVID-19 – Email Notification Service

“Digital is about applying the culture, processes, business models and technologies of the internet era to respond to people’s raised expectations.” – Tom Loosemore

Marcel Saulnier is an Assistant Deputy Minister at Health Canada. As part of Canada’s response to the Coronavirus outbreak he has been leading the digital surge team that made “Get Updates on COVID-19”. The service is a collaboration between Health Canada, Service Canada, Canadian Digital Service and Treasury Board Secretariat.

When the COVID-19 global crisis escalated and Canada’s national response was forming, we recognised a need to get information into the hands of Canadians quickly. In the middle of March, the coronavirus pages on were seeing highs of up to 13 million visits daily. 90% of the traffic was directed from Google, showing that people were searching for reliable information.

The evolving situation needed a quick response, a way for Canadians to receive important Government of Canada information to help them better manage their health and well-being, and combat misinformation. A new, multidisciplinary product team working remotely across departments looked at existing tools and best practices, learning from what other countries had done to jumpstart the solution. Instead of looking to purchase a solution, the product quickly evolved into an email subscription service that sends Canadians updates on important information about COVID-19.

The Canadian Digital Service had already adapted the basic service from the UK’s open source Notify platform. Service Canada stepped up and leveraged its existing infrastructure to securely manage data and create a subscription-based service.

The project has aligned to the Government of Canada principles for digital government: user-centered, agile and iterative, working across departmental teams, embedding security and privacy, using simple language, and prioritizing accessibility.

The email notification service is maturing, and we’re still improving it but there are a few things we have learned so far:

  • Keep it simple. We built the minimum viable product that was required for launch. New features have been added iteratively, making improvements as we go and refining the service.
  • Focus on people. Everyone needs to be able to understand the messages and what they need to do. We are using simple, easy to understand language in an accessible email format.
  • Content is data driven. We consult data analytics from top searches and key questions from the 1-833 call line to track trends in what people are worried about. This keeps our content agile and responsive to the evolving situation.
  • Start with open source tools and products. Building on existing tools and services meant we were able to build a turnkey service in a matter of days.
  • Collaborate. Our partners were included from the beginning so despite moving quickly, we went through the security, legal, and privacy aspects diligently.
  • An empowered team helps you go faster. The team is a mix of skills and departments. Frequent check-ins, a willingness to learn and ask questions has meant a collaborative environment with shorter lead times and fewer follow ups.

The service was envisioned specifically for the COVID-19 crisis. But the product we’ve built, with the improvements and new applications of the existing tools, can be replicated at scale. A detailed account of the product process, including links to the open source tools we used will be available for the next group building a similar email subscription-based service.

Digital government represents a shift in how the Government provides services to the people of Canada. It’s about building government services that are agile, open-source, user-focused and developed collaboratively with partners across platforms, departments, and jurisdictions. The COVID-19 pandemic is fast-tracking digital transformation and the approach to building this service is an example of that.