While coronavirus vaccines are slowly becoming available at pharmacies, hospitals, and special vaccination centers across the country, finding which locations actually have doses has been a constant challenge.
Eligibility rules have shifted over time in many jurisdictions, and unpredictable vaccine supplies have led to canceled appointments and sent many senior citizens scrambling to find places that have shots and appointment slots available. And while some cities and states have set up websites to let people locate and sign up for vaccinations, many of them have been called buggy, confusing, and cumbersome to use, especially for people with limited internet access or digital expertise.
To try to fill that gap, people around the country have been setting up grassroots efforts to track vaccine data and present it to the public in an easy-to-understand way. Often motivated by seeing older relatives and friends scramble to track down vaccine doses, they’ve organized networks of volunteers or crowdsourced data from the public about where inoculations are actually available for different groups.
“It just came out of my dad’s struggle to find the vaccine locally,” says Carri Craver, a Dallas-area digital product creator who built a site tracking vaccine availability across Texas. “He went to a couple of places, he called a couple of places, he looked at a couple of places online, and everybody was like, come back later, we don’t have it.”
The best methods for finding out who has vaccines have proven to be pretty low-tech. Volunteers have found the most reliable information comes from actually calling the pharmacies, clinics, and other sites giving the shots to see whether they have any in stock, who can get them when, and if they need an appointment. Then, hosts of volunteers share that information using basic code-free tools such as Airtable and Google Sheets.
Craver, who launched her site about a month ago, says she gathers information from people who report their experiences after calling or visiting vaccine sites; she also encourages vaccine providers to submit updates online. To address accessibility issues, she has taken steps to make sure her site is easy to navigate. It uses fonts and formatting that are easy to read even for people with limited eyesight.
Craver is now working with a team from software giant Oracle, which has agreed to donate computing resources and development time, to expand the site to cover additional states. Oracle’s assistance came organically, after some of the company’s tech workers had begun to offer help on their own time. “I reached out as an Austin citizen,” says Oracle senior consultant Kurt Bringsjord. “About a week later, my boss had already offered to donate some services, like my time and people on my team’s time.”
The data problem
Other local efforts are already underway around the country, with vaccine-tracking sites popping up in New York City, New Jersey, Michigan, California, and other jurisdictions. Many of the site creators emphasize that their data may not be perfect or always up-to-date: Pharmacies and clinics that tell callers they have vaccines or appointments available might run out before the site is next updated. Other unforeseen difficulties can lead to changes in availability. But these crowdsourced efforts can at least give people looking for a vaccine a leg up on which place to contact and reduce the amount of time both patients and providers spend on the phone.
Of course, these sites only exist because data from federal, state, and local authorities are unreliable and often difficult to access. Information gaps such as this one have been a consistent problem during the pandemic. The dearth of official data has inspired a host of other crowdsourced data projects, such as the volunteer-run COVID Tracking Project, whose data about infection and death rates across the U.S. has been widely cited. If official information were actually kept up-to-date and made easy to find and interpret, crowdsourced efforts might become superfluous. That’s what happened with the COVID Tracking Project: The group behind it announced Monday that it would cease tracking new information next month, as federal agencies have begun releasing better data under the Biden administration. The same might eventually happen with vaccine availability.
Standardized government vaccine tracking might also help with the lag in data that crowdsourced sites are struggling with. “We know data can become stale before we have a chance to refresh it,” writes Zolle Egner, one of the organizers behind VaccinateCA, one of the most high-profile of these efforts, in an email to Fast Company. “As a result, we have ways for both users of the site and healthcare workers to directly send us tips and corrections, and have a team dedicated to reviewing, verifying, and managing those corrections as they come in.”
VaccinateCA has drawn attention partly from being publicized on the Twitter feed of Patrick McKenzie, a Stripe employee and serial entrepreneur who’s another of the site’s volunteer organizers. The effort now has a core team of about 20 people, but more than 300 people have contributed so far, mostly by calling vaccination sites to check on availability and eligibility requirements, Egner writes.
The phone bank volunteers use a custom app built with Airtable to solicit information from vaccine sites such as pharmacies and share it in a standardized, scalable way. The app prompts volunteers with site that needs to be called, prioritized by likelihood of vaccine availability, and shows them a simple script with questions such as whether the location is offering walk-in vaccines to people over 65 and what documentation they need to present to get the shot, along with instructions for how to record that information in the database. The group has provided the app code online so other organizations can reuse it in their states.
A new role for local news
Most vaccine tracking efforts start with just one or a handful of volunteers staffing the phones and computers. Planet Princeton, a hyperlocal news site in that New Jersey university town, has built a tracking tool in collaboration with the volunteer “covid19vaccinestatusnj” project to track vaccine availability in the Garden State. Planet Princeton founder and publisher Krystal Knapp, who’s been covering pandemic-related issues since last February, says she started the project after hearing from readers that they couldn’t find reliable information about where to get vaccinated.
“At the beginning it was just me,” says Knapp. “I literally stayed up to 3 or 4 a.m. four nights in a row.”
Now, volunteers divide up vaccination sites, checking their websites and making calls to find out status information, which is presented to the public through a simple Google Sheets spreadsheet. That format is easy to update and read and makes it possible for other websites around the state to embed the listings. Even for news sites such as Knapp’s that serve one community, it’s still useful to have statewide information, since people sometimes have to travel a distance to get the vaccine, she says. She’s gotten positive feedback both from readers and from pharmacists who are now less inundated with calls from people seeking vaccine updates.
As vaccine availability and eligibility situations continue to evolve, site creators say they anticipate more such projects will pop up around the country, with some encouraging would-be copycats to reach out for advice. And despite the sometimes long hours, they say they’re glad they put in the effort to keep people informed about where to get their shots.
“I’m just hopeful to really be able to help with the information flow, at least,” says Craver. “I can’t change the distribution process, but hopefully we can make this easier on the oldest and the sickest of our population. They shouldn’t be just left to stress.”