It was only meant to be a simulation. When the BBC and Cambridge University enlisted the help of Zagreb-based software designers Q, the app they wanted them to build was for a dress rehearsal.
Employed between September and November 2017, the BBC Pandemic App was used to show how a highly infectious flu could spread across the UK. Its results helped make that year's 'Contagion! The BBC Four Pandemic' tv show. But, the app is now being used to predict the spread of Coronavirus, helping to control the outbreak and plan the public health response.
The award-winning Q Agency, who last year were among the fastest-growing software design agencies in Europe, have had 200 clients so far, including global brands like Facebook, Volkswagen and The Times newspaper. Their project with the BBC was initiated to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the Spanish flu outbreak. Hoping to get 10, 000 to sign up to the social experiment, some 100, 000 actually downloaded the app, pushing it to become the then-most popular medical app in the UK's Apple Store and Google Play.
The app anonymously charted a person's movement and could therefore help assess the spread of a flu-like virus. After the documentary was aired, the app continued running for a year and this data was collected and analysed by Cambridge University and the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine.
The Q Agency's association with the BBC did not end after the data collection. They were recently contacted by the broadcaster to discuss the possible development of a new app that would track people with Coronavirus symptoms in real time.