Jimmy Chion's homemade website offers a simple solution to the problem of wasted Covid-19 vaccinations: a one-stop destination to pair people anywhere in the U.S. with excess or near-spoiled doses near them.
It's an alluring proposition. For many Americans, finding a vaccination appointment means navigating a maze of government websites and phone lines in hopes of snagging a spot only to be routinely told to check back later. Efforts to make appointments for older relatives have left even tech-savvy people frustrated.
Chion, 33, a resident of Atlanta, and Ian Macartney, 33, of Watertown, Massachusetts, friends from their time at Stanford University, got together and created vaxstandby.com. Launched Feb. 1, it's a slick, user-friendly website. People can sign up to receive notifications if doses become available near them.
"We came up with this idea because we saw basically a ton of news articles, as I'm sure you've read, of freezers breaking, of people waiting in line outside grocery stores," Chion said. "A bunch of groups have sprung up, like Facebook groups, in terms of basically crowdsource-finding these leftovers."
Chion is one of a growing group of technologists who have taken matters into their own hands.
- In California, VaccinateCA.com was started by volunteers and now offers countylevel details about vaccination availability, with data compiled and updated on a daily basis.
- In New York, an Airbnb software engineer created a website to compile vaccination availability from the state's city and state systems.
- In Massachusetts, a software developer on maternity leave created a website that pulls together vaccination appointments from state and private portals.
- Chion even faces some competition from a website, hidrb.com, which is also trying to pair people with excess doses.
Those websites come as the challenge of signing up for vaccination appointments has emerged as one of the biggest problems for national distribution. In most states, people have to check multiple websites, many of which offer little information. And with older Americans waiting at the front of the line, some people have formed volunteer efforts to help them navigate the systems.
The problem could get worse. Many states are preparing to open registrations to larger populations, and national pharmacy chains are preparing to begin administering vaccinations.
Chion's operation is still in its early stages. He said they are taking a "top-down" approach, talking to some of the national pharmacy chains and other companies involved in vaccine distribution to see if they would want to use his approach. They're also considering other ways of working with smaller distributors who can prove they have doses to distribute, but noted that he does not want the website to become a roadblock.
The upside for Chion's website is simple: centralization.
"I think there's like a benefit to being centralized if everyone can sign up on this one basically national list," he said. "As long as we know your rough location, we can tell you when there's a leftover vaccine, and then notify you based on that."
It's the kind of simplicity that has been missing in U.S. vaccine distribution — and something other technologists are trying to create.
Government websites are not known for their usability or functionality. The fiasco around the early days of HealthCare.gov, the website meant to help people apply to and enroll in private insurance through the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, remains one of the more high-profile failures of what was supposed to be a modern government web portal.
Many states have rolled out their own vaccination portals to varying levels of success, with the volunteer efforts at times making them look archaic and inefficient. But the gap between shiny and streamlined websites built by individuals and small groups and those made by state governments can be misleading.
"The constraints on people outside government to build things are very different than the constraints on people inside government," said Daniel Schuman, policy director at Demand Progress, a liberal nonprofit that advocates for government transparency.
Schuman has worked on his own versions of websites meant to try to prod the government to do better. In 2016, he created a website to make every Congressional Research Service report available online.
And while he said governments can and should do better, they face a wide variety of challenges, including expectations and regulations that private citizens don't.
"Government has to make services available for everyone, and they have to be able to maintain it, and they have to deal with many restrictions based on privacy and information security and access and connecting to legacy systems," he said. "These are all things people on the outside don't have to deal with in the same way."
Chion, a creative technologist for The New York Times (his website is not affiliated with the newspaper), has built public service websites before, most notably websites to help Californians understand state ballot propositions.
He is clear-eyed about the broader challenges of vaccine distribution. He said the prospect of building a system to track shipments and make appointments based on those shipments is a far more complex effort that the one he has created.
But, he said, there is an upside to people offering solutions that states either won't or can't develop.
"I think it helps to push government to do and think about things differently."
Jimmy Chion, founder of Vaxstandby.com
"I think it helps to push government to do and think about things differently," he said. "Again, not necessarily better or worse, but helps them see maybe what could be done or how some people want it to be done."
Schuman offered a similar assessment. He mentioned a variety of examples of people making websites that spurred similar and sometimes near-identical government efforts, including redesigns to the websites of the Federal Communications Commission and the Supreme Court.
He also stressed that the current situation was due in large part to the Trump administration's insistence on a decentralized approach that resulted in little national coordination. But there's still time for government to learn from some of the efforts that the people have made.
"You can do it but you have to have the mandate to do it," he said. "You have to have the money to do it and you have to have the mandate to do it."
"That doesn’t mean it’s too late to do these things."