The man who gave the nation the QR fix
When Covid hit, Alan Chew was one step ahead. The curious-minded Hamilton man had studied pandemics as a layman 20 years earlier, so he knew contact tracing was key.
It was New Zealand luck that he also ran an IT company, Houston Technology Group.
Chew began to wonder what he could do to help the country fight Covid, and naturally turned to a tech-based solution.
The key, he and his team decided, was that contact tracing be cheap and easy to use. The solution was a QR code, which only required a piece of paper and a mobile phone. And the app-based solution, built on March 29, is almost exactly what the government rolled out, he says.
* Covid-19: What do you do if you can’t scan a QR code or sign a sheet?
* Covid-19: Call to make digitization compulsory in “super diffusion” places – pubs, clubs, restaurants
* Covid Tracer: What is the government app really for?
So accurate that it bears his name as author, as well as that of Daniel Britten. The ubiquitous app and QR code used by New Zealanders is partly Chew’s gift to the nation in an act of gratitude for the free education he so values.
Not that it’s simple. An idea is one thing, getting noticed by the people who matter is another. “I thought, ‘To get attention, I need credibility. Who is Alan Chew? Nobody knows him.
He received sound advice – get approval from the University of Waikato. The university tested his idea, liked it and gave it their backing, and Chew built a prototype. The pilot tests worked, Chew did a PowerPoint and…nothing.
He sent it once, twice, finally four or five times, mostly to the Ministry of Health and got “absolutely no response”.
Enter a reporter who Chew says rocked the cage for him. Eventually, he received an email asking him to send his idea to the ministry. He did and had no response for a week. It seemed endless given in a pandemic “every day lives are at stake”.
Eventually they responded – they liked the idea and would go ahead. It had taken a total of six weeks, but his simple idea had paid off.
Chew is the understanding of delay. “I think they were in complete disarray. I think you would expect a Ministry of Health to be in disarray at this point in the pandemic. They had too many.
Chew, dapper in a black suit and white shirt, is a graceful, polite, and driven person. These qualities were shaped in a very different Waikato environment. His story is fascinating and he tells it well.
“I was born into abject poverty in Malaysia,” he begins. “My parents, they were really very unhappy people, in the sense that they had no education. They were illiterate until the day they died. And when I was born, we lived in a village in KL.
The village was a coconut grove abandoned by the owners because the trees were too old to produce well. Then the squatters arrived, including Chew’s parents.
During the 1960s and 1970s, the colonialist powers arrived in search of business opportunities, and this was to give Alan Chew’s family a big chance. Chew’s father – with a background in carpentry – seized his own opportunity and started building gas stations for Americans. He was given plans showing where the tanks and buildings would be placed, but not understanding a word of English was a hindrance.
This is where young Alan, aged about 10, played his part. “Some of those words, even today I look back, are not easy words.” The word “cistern” for example, which they had to look up in a dictionary. “It means a container with water. What would that mean? ‘Ah, toilet!’.”
The family approach worked as investors kept coming back for his father to build more. His parents became wealthy, at least by village standards, which Chew said meant they had the only car, a 10-year-old Morris Minor, and the only telephone in the community. “Telephones were not allowed in the squatters. But in Malaysia, if you have money, you can buy anything.
The story, however, begins earlier, with Chew’s father as a youngster in Guangdong, China, a region that suffered from famines. The father (Alan’s grandfather) was gone, the family consisted of the mother and three boys, and there was not enough food. The mother told Alan’s father, then the eldest son, at 13, that he would have to leave or they would all starve to death together.
Chris Hipkins told Q+A he thinks there are “certainly more infections in the community than the testing numbers will show”.
He left home, went to the border with Hong Kong and found work, thinks Alan like a herd of goats. Eventually he moved to Hong Kong, took a carpentry apprenticeship and learned other skills, including bricklaying, before sailing to Singapore, a journey that took him months to be rewarded. Kuala Lumpur was next, penniless and uneducated – but ultimately with the gas station building ahead of him.
“I grew up feeling very proud that even though we had such difficult circumstances, we managed to do so well.”
Chew believes it was Confucianism, which teaches respect for education, that led his parents to “beg, borrow and steal” so their children could have a school education. This was followed, in Chew’s case, by his parents paying for him to go to New Zealand and, in pre-fee days, a degree in management studies at the University of Waikato, graduated with honors in 1979.
“It was free education. I was very grateful. This is where the tracer app comes in, born out of his interest in pandemics.
Why the fascination?
“I like weird topics and pandemics are, what do they say – reality is stranger than fiction. I like things like that. When you study germs, and so forth, and how they turn into something else. You look at this, I still don’t understand, they look at the Covid virus. A virus is not even a living thing. Technically, by biological definition, is not even a living thing. It’s half dead, half alive, if you will. So small you can only see it with an electron microscope.
It’s mind-boggling that, despite this, he’s able to mutate into something more contagious or deadly. “It’s something very exciting. So I like that kind of stuff.
This sends him in another direction. “I read a lot about evolution. I like evolution. The question is why are humans born in such an immature state, compared to all other primates? A baby monkey can swing from branch to branch almost immediately, he says, while humans are born “absolutely helpless.” “These are the questions that interest me.”
(Chew has an answer, which has to do with the rapid expansion of the human brain, though he happily acknowledges that it’s speculative.)
For the ever-curious Chew, education was the way out of poverty, and it’s his goal in his philanthropic work, including as a board member of the WEL Energy Trust. “I keep beating the drum we need to put money into education.”
He also remains resolutely forward-looking with the company he founded in March 1986, making it probably Hamilton’s oldest IT company. (Early promotions riffed on “Houston, we’ve got a problem,” a line that was immediately accessible at the time.)
Chew has developed an interest in the healthcare sector and is adapting the idea of the Covid tracer app for use in medical centers, while also exploring the use of “disruptive” technologies such as robotics.
As for the Covid app, has he ever forgotten to use it himself? Almost certainly not. “I think I’m pretty meticulous. Because I think for the 10 seconds that I’m using it contributes quite significantly to the public good.
He never received an alert from the app and Chew, who is fully vaccinated, did not have Covid himself.
“That’s another story, isn’t it?” I don’t understand anti-vaxxers. Some of them, he says, are brilliant people, but he wonders why they don’t read newspapers and academic journals. When politicians of all persuasions, health authorities in New Zealand and abroad and reputable media are saying the same, then on a balance of probabilities, vaccination must be good for you. “Not just balance, it’s a huge balance of probability.”
But with Omicron crawling, the plotter app can run its course just fine, and Chew agrees with that. “If the ministry says we don’t need to do it anymore, I trust them. The goal is to dilute every day right now,” he says.
Then he adds: “Until the next pandemic comes.”