Wednesday, March 3, 2021
March 3, 2021

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Westneat: Frustrated vaccine hunters try to fix broken system

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That pretty much said it all, the other day, when a 90-year-old remarked in a Seattle Times story that the easy part of navigating our COVID-19 vaccine system was when she had to walk 6 miles through the snow to get the shot.

George Hu is only 52, but he can sympathize. When the former Microsoft developer tried to find appointments online for his 80-year-old in-laws, he was dumbfounded how primitive it all was.

“All tech people who see this setup are horrified,” Hu says.

There isn’t one or a couple of places to hunt vaccine, but rather . . . hundreds, many with their own interfaces. I ran into one vaccine provider that was using Doodle for its vaccine appointment scheduling, another using Sign-Up Genius, another with a “don’t call us, we’ll text you back sometime” online form.

Rather than a global health emergency, it felt more like when the PTA is signing parents up for a bake sale.

“It’s whack-a-mole, except there are 300 holes,” Hu says. “And also you have no clue if the mole is ever going to pop up in any of them.”

Echoed Maureen O’Hara, a former Microsoft project manager turned vaccine hunter: “I realized at one point I had 30 tabs open on my computer, and still no appointment. I remember a lot of cuss words were involved.”

The obvious thought is: Shouldn’t there be an app for this? OpenTable manages to book 1 billion reservations a year at hundreds of thousands of restaurants. How hard would it be to adapt that to a system with 330 sites statewide?

Not that hard, it turns out.

“We had the basics of it up and running in a few days,” says Hu, who teaches computer science at South Seattle College.

Starting about 10 days ago, the mounting frustration prompted a team of four guerrilla techies, led by Hu, to set up a system of “screen scrapers,” robots that troll the 330 vaccine websites to search for available appointments. Hu said the inspiration was the way scalpers use bots to comb through sites like Ticketmaster, hustling cheap tickets.

The result is the WA COVID Vaccine Finder, or covidwa.com, the state’s first one-stop site for vaccine appointments. It went live around a week ago and is getting 10,000 visits a day from anxious shot hunters, says O’Hara, who is working on the project with Hu.

Hu says the prototype was built in a weekend by Darren Lim, a sophomore at MIT, who had coded a similar “grade-scraper” when he was at Kirkland’s Lake Washington High School to let him know when his grades were updated. Already the group has 98 volunteers, including a bunch of ex-Microsofties and University of Washington computer science students.

“The tech industry has been kind of sitting on the sidelines during the pandemic, so there was a pent-up desire to help,” O’Hara says. “There was a feeling of ‘here’s an area where we actually have the skill set.’ ”

Warning: The site, while a godsend in theory, offers no solace from the vaccine system’s main problem — lack of vaccine. At one point Tuesday, the site’s software bots, though scouring every vaccine site every five minutes, were finding open appointments at only two places in the state.

“It’s going to be a very useful site once the spice starts flowing,” Hu predicts.

Some vaccine providers also have bot-blocking technologies that make it hard to read their data. So at this early stage, covidwa.com is capturing only about two-thirds of the state’s vaccine sites.

Couldn’t this scheduling chaos have been foreseen? Prepared for by the government somehow?

“There was almost a year of incredible scientific progress on inventing the vaccines,” Hu says. “And yes, I certainly wonder why someone wasn’t also figuring out during that time what we were going to do once the FedEx plane carrying the vaccines landed in our state.”

Well, if the 90-year-olds can hump 6 miles through the snow for their shots, how hacked off can the rest of us get? At least now we’ve got a place to look if — or more hopefully, when — the spice really does start to flow.

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