Volunteer Spotlight: Making it Easier for People to Get the COVID-19 Vaccine

How Code for Boston is filling the gaps to help push forward the Massachusetts vaccine rollout
A map showing vaccine availability in MA

Like many states, Massachusetts had a bumpy rollout of their COVID-19 vaccination effort. One of the biggest problems in the early days of the vaccination campaign was that many people who were eligible for the vaccine couldn’t find a location to get a shot. The state website has availability for mass vaccination sites, but missed more than 100 additional local and retail sites. Working with a group of local volunteers, Code for Boston helped to create VaccinateMA.com, a website that helps people find and schedule appointments. At one point, several of the state-based vaccine platforms crashed and VaccinateMA was getting 6,000 hits per hour. Through design work, software engineering, volunteer organizing, and even phonebanking to clinics to verify data, the team at Code for Boston is working on one goal: get more shots in arms.

To find out more about VaccinateMA, we spoke with Madeleine Barowsky, volunteer coordinator for VaccinateMA, Matt Zagaja, lead organizer of Code for Boston, and Harlan Weber, founder of Code for Boston. You can also hear from Code for Boston about the process of creating VaccinateMA on the Code for America YouTube channel.

When did you first realize that there was a real need for a project like VaccinateMA.com and that you could be part of the effort to create it?

Madeleine: When vaccines were just starting to be given to the first priority group, I suddenly saw a sign appear at my local pharmacy that said “No COVID-19 vaccine yet.” So this made the rollout suddenly feel very real. I tried to find information about vaccine locations online and it was difficult—you had to download a Word doc. I knew a site like VaccinateMA was going to become very important for the rest of the year.

Harlan: I’d been hearing a lot of news reports about the technical difficulties involved in the vaccine rollout in Massachusetts. On Twitter, I saw a New York City Councilmember mention the NYC Vaccine List project and thought that something similar would be useful for Code for Boston to build locally. I reached out to the NYC Vaccine List team to see about forking their code, but by the time we’d gotten connected, the VaccinateMA team, consisting of volunteers Zane Stiles and Kunal Shah, had already spun up the first version of their site. So Matt and I emailed them and offered Code for Boston’s support on the project, and we’ve been able to provide engineering, DevOps, design, and product support to the team of volunteers that was already doing amazing work.

What was the most difficult part of this project? What was the most rewarding?

Madeleine: Most difficult… I don’t know because I’m sure there are many challenges ahead! We are changing and building things every single day. The last phase of the rollout is estimated to end in June, so I imagine I’ll be on VaccinateMA for a while longer. Definitely the most rewarding part is getting feedback from people who were able to book a vaccine with our site. That’s amazing, it makes my day.

Matt: The most challenging part of this project for me was handling the migration of the site to Amazon Web Services Elastic Beanstalk. It took a couple weeks to fully get up to speed and to understand how to configure it. At the same time, the payoff was huge. This server infrastructure held up on a morning when we had thousands of visitors as the official Massachusetts vaccine finder crashed.

Harlan: The most difficult part of my work as a designer has been designing around incomplete or highly variable data. For example, in the “Vaccine availability” field, which is key information for users, some vaccination sites give us concise and very regular data like “January 25 (250 slots available),” while other sites give us instructions like “Email our concierge for availability information and we’ll get back to you within 36 hours.” This makes it difficult to create design patterns that can accommodate a wide variety of content, while still surfacing critical information to users in a readable manner. As Madeleine said, the feedback from users is by far the best part. The team that’s come together on this project is really amazing, and it’s been a real privilege to work with them.

a screenshot of a thankful slack message
A VaccinateMA user says thanks after getting an appointment through the site

A vaccination website is clearly time-sensitive right now. What was the experience like building something like this really quickly? How did you maintain your values of collaboration and partnership under a time crunch?

Matt: When speed is everything, you prioritize tasks that let the team move faster. You also make technical choices that are inclusive of other developers—meaning you pick platforms and tools that a lot of people are already familiar with. To connect the place where we are collecting the data on vaccination sites to our interactive map, we chose technologies like Node.js and React because most developers have used them before. We also used techniques like continuous deployment and tools like Github Actions to help speed up testing and releasing changes to the code.

Madeleine: My first job for the site was checking appointment availability in Worcester County, but I quickly realized that the project was growing and we were falling behind on keeping sites up-to-date, so I stepped up to lead that piece of the project and bring other volunteers on board. Zane and Kunal and everybody in Code for Boston have always been super welcoming of new people and communicate quite often when things are happening.

How might this project inform other vaccination information efforts around the country, locally or on a broader scale?

Matt: We have had conversations with groups in Illinois and Ohio about this project. The folks in Ohio have re-used some of our code, and are adopting our approach of recruiting volunteers to check sites. The most important thing has been to have technologists working side by side with the other stakeholders. Checking sites is just as valuable as writing code or doing media outreach. Also building a community and coordinating on Slack made a big difference in keeping everyone on the same page.

What did your work reveal to you about the state of digital service delivery in your area? What do you hope the local and state governments learn from your work?

Matt: Massachusetts is a place that is relatively advanced from a technology standpoint, but it’s clear we still have much work to do. The biggest lesson I hope the government learns from this is the value of having technical expertise in-house, and the importance of setting data standards. Had Massachusetts chosen to develop its own vaccine registration system, it likely could have more nimbly updated it and responded to the issues that arose throughout this process instead of dealing with a multitude of vendors. Finally, the thing that would have made this easier for everyone is a common standard for sharing this data. Creating something like the UK Data Standards Authority would be a great step to prepare for a digital response to the next disaster.

Harlan: We’ve communicated with several state legislators and government partners over the course of this project, and my biggest takeaway is that we need to expand the role of digital service teams in the Massachusetts government. There are existing teams enabling great, human-centered delivery of key government services; they should be augmented and empowered to continue their work. New digital teams could be stood up in other executive agencies across the state government like the Department of Public Health, the Department of Unemployment Assistance, and anywhere else that’s had to move rapidly on public-facing technology projects during this terrible pandemic year. We need to figure out a way to fund those teams because the services those agencies provide are so, so critical to the well-being of Commonwealth residents. As Matt said, we need to build modern technical and design expertise into the government to support the mission of these agencies, and this is one way to do it.

What do you want other volunteers and Brigades to learn from your experience?

Matt: The biggest lesson from this is: many hands make light work. By bringing together a diverse group of volunteers with a variety of skills, we have managed to cover all aspects of the project, from coordinating volunteers to updating the design and writing code. Our volunteers with public health backgrounds have been especially helping in guiding us to where we can have the biggest impact. Finally, it has been useful to take advantage of the in-kind donations Code for America provides brigades. Code for America recently partnered with the software company New Relic and we started using them to keep track of site performance and reliability, and it already has helped us identify a few bugs.

Harlan: Of course, everything that Matt said. But I also think that this project can be a stepping-stone for volunteers to learn more about the civic tech space in general, and to learn how much our local, state, and federal governments need technologists to move into public service roles.

What else is Code for Boston working on right now?

Matt: Our projects are all listed on our website, but we are especially excited about the Police Data Trust project that is developing a data standard and app for police misconduct data. We also recently started working with the Clough Center at Boston College on an advocacy maps project to help nonprofits connect with legislators on issues they care about and share information about where public officials stand on the issues.

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