Where’s a good software engineer when you need one?
One of the most frustrating aspects of the slow roll-out of COVID-19 vaccines in Massachusetts is reflected all around us. We live and work among hospitals, universities and a technology industry that are the envy of the world. Yet, as of Tuesday, we trail 29 states and the District of Columbia in the portion of the population with at least one part of a two-shot regimen. Not to name names but Louisiana, Arkansas and West Virginia are ahead of us.
Never mind that one publicly available COVID-19 vaccine was developed in Cambridge and another was manufactured, at least in part, in Andover. Or that when it comes to getting the annual flu vaccine, Massachusetts often leads the country, or comes in a close second, in the number of residents who roll up their sleeves.
The latest illustration of this disconnect between government delivery of COVID-19 shots and the rest of the state’s reality springs to life online. You may find the state’s online guide to where to get a COVID-19 vaccine cumbersome and difficult — especially if you’re in your eighth decade, or you’re helping someone who is. And you’re not alone.
Which is why Olivia Adams, 28, a software engineer at Athenahealth who lives Arlington, stepped up. Working on a side project while on maternity leave, Adams put together www.macovidvaccines.com, which is mobile friendly and gives a far better user experience than the state’s www.mass.gov/covid-19-vaccine.
It’s not an official site. It’s not especially fancy. It just scrapes information from other websites about where vaccine appointments are available and pulls it all together in one place. Users can filter by whether appointments are actually offered, which is pretty much the first question anyone looking at one of these websites will have.
Imagine, a software engineer living in Arlington with time on her hands and the public interest at heart. What were the odds?
Well, pretty good, as a matter of fact. So much that another site, www.vaccinatema.com, has popped up to deliver essentially the same information. This one has a few more bells and whistles — a color coded map for people who like a visual guide, as well as a searchable list. It also has an easy-to-understand chart that parses the complexities of who’s eligible to receive a vaccine, who isn’t and who’s next in line.
Both of these homegrown sites, as well as the state’s, ultimately direct people to sign up with a specific provider.
The big takeaway here is that people in private enterprise put together these sites, on their own, with more clarity and, it seems, no specific invitation from the state to help. And that begs the question: Why?
The second site, in fact, credits the work of a volunteer corps of web developers and engineers called Code for Boston, which devotes energy to projects just like this one. It’s been around for so long that its efforts have a name (“civic tech”), a regular weekly meeting (Tuesday nights at 7, though virtual these days) and a much larger umbrella organization, Code for America. Among its many other projects are predicting drinking water contamination for the Charles River Watershed Association and creating an app that builds networks of people who like to pick up litter.
Developers of vaccinatema.com note the state’s abysmal rankings in vaccine delivery and the fact its website “requires multiple click-throughs to find availability and doesn’t allow easy navigation via Google Maps. We wanted to make this process easier.” Let’s all be glad they did. We can also be glad that Adams picked up this side project, too.
At the same time we’re more than a little disappointed in Gov. Charlie Baker’s blasé reaction during a press conference last week when someone asked if the state had plans to develop a site like the one Adams put together. “Send us her name, we’ll talk to her,” he responded.
Adams told CNN she’d reached out to the state before then, as she was developing her site. On Monday she says she finally heard back from the Coronavirus Command Center, which is just getting around to enlisting the help of one of that rare breed here in Massachusetts, the software engineer.