Koreans Access a Vital Resource Through Mask Alimi

South Korea, like most countries around the globe, continues its fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, and was recently able to record a decline in the rate of new infections. While general health guidelines have helped usher in the decline, another, perhaps more surprising contributor has been IT and the development of consumer apps.

One area where technology has been key to South Korea’s COVID-19 mitigation strategy: easing access to protective masks. Unsurprisingly, masks were hard to come by. In fact, people waited in long lines to get them—which was both inconvenient and risked creating another vector for infection. So the government published an API, a slice of computer code programmers could use to query how many masks each pharmacy had available. Here, KB Insurance saw an opportunity to help its community in a time of need.

“Given the nature of the insurance business itself, customers tend to access our app only when they have a claim or are sick, so it can be part of a bad experience,” said Han Eon Sup, principal engineer in KB Insurance’s digital strategy department. “This time, though, we saw an opportunity to protect our customers’ health in a proactive manner.”

On the morning of March 10, the government announced it would provide mask inventory data via the API. On March 11, KB Insurance released a service called Mask Alimi (or “Mask Nearby”), which used that data to show people where they could purchase masks. Bringing a consumer-facing service to market so quickly required extensive coordination throughout the company—including swift decision-making at the executive level—and an innovative approach to software development and design.

KB Insurance began developing the service the moment the API was released; the initial version was created by one developer who spent just six hours coding. The application was launched using modern processes, namely carrying out development first, then modifying the design accordingly and refining the project plan along the way. By contrast, traditional IT projects are often completed in the reverse order, which adds cost and complexity that would have hindered the effectiveness of Mask Alimi.

A screenshot of the Mask Alimi service showing mask availability by location.

The team decided to deploy Mask Alimi using the CLAYON platform, a cloud native platform parent company KB Financial Group built in partnership with the VMware Tanzu team. It was the ability to release new software features quickly that convinced KB to partner with VMware Tanzu. 

“Since we are a finance company, running a service off-premises is complicated by certain guidelines and approval requirements governing the financial sector,” said Eon Sup. “We were looking for a reliable place to put our service quickly without the concerns about regulations, and CLAYON, based on VMware Tanzu Application Service, was the best, validated cloud environment.” 

Eon Sup said that what impressed him was not just the well-structured platform architecture, but its ability to handle unexpected spiky traffic from users. "I just pushed my source code into the CLAYON, and it automatically set up all components needed to push the service live," he said. "Load balancer setup, dependency management, and DNS configuration were done automatically. The number of users that consumed the service was more than I estimated. It was remarkably interesting to watch, because the platform handled all the extra traffic easily.”

After launch, the team iterated quickly and often, releasing new features every day for two weeks. “Using Tanzu Application Service was advantageous because updates can be applied without downtime,” said Eon Sup. “It was easy for one person to control and manage the service because the product automates everything the service needs to go live.”

Once Mask Alimi was created, it was promoted in the media, through KB Financial Group’s mobile apps and websites, and on its messaging service, Liiv TalkTalk. Although it was made available to the general public, it also became a way for KB Insurance’s salespeople to reach out to and support their customers remotely. Since being launched, the app has served 230,000 users, with 5,700,000 total page views.

It's rare for a financial company to launch a product so quickly. However, KB Insurance  was motivated to find a way to help Korean citizens. With quick decision-making at the executive level, and the technology to support it, the company was able to achieve its goal.

“This project showed that agile working leads to better results,” said Executive Director Nak Cheon Choi, head of KB Insurance’s digital division. “We will create a support system to ensure that this kind of agile working practice can be done sustainably, and so that digital innovation based on this kind of rapid decision-making and efficient business promotion continues.”

 
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