This Twitter Bot Alerts LA Residents to Open Vaccine Appointments

Francesca Billington

Francesca Billington is a freelance reporter. Prior to that, she was a general assignment reporter for dot.LA and has also reported for KCRW, the Santa Monica Daily Press and local publications in New Jersey. She graduated from Princeton in 2019 with a degree in anthropology.

This Twitter Bot Alerts LA Residents to Open Vaccine Appointments
Photo by Hakan Nural on Unsplash

A 24-year-old unemployed college graduate frustrated by the tedious process of finding his grandmother a vaccine appointment created a new site to make it easier.

Find My Vax LA translates appointment information to any language, searches for open slots by zip code and on Friday released a Twitter bot that alerts followers of availability.

Andrew Friedman was hit with the same idea software engineers across the country have chased since public officials started distributing the COVID-19 shot.

"Frankly it's hard to access resources," said Friedman, who studied political science and computer science at the University of Chicago. "We really want to make sure we're getting this in the hands of the people that need it most. And the people that are currently not served as well by the current system."

The goal, he said, is to "augment" L.A. County's efforts to help people sign up for appointments.

"The current system does favor people who are from wealthier backgrounds, who have more technological literacy."

Since L.A. received its first shipments of COVID-19 vaccines, booking appointments has become an obstacle for many. The confusing and often weekslong process has translated to steep inequities across the city.

"A lot of people said they were only able to get an appointment because they had their husbands and three of their kids spending hours watching these websites and refreshing to get a slot," said Kristen Choi, a nurse and UCLA assistant professor of health policy and management.

"It means that the only people who can get the appointment are those with the luxury of time and people to help them find one," she said. "Those appointments are disproportionately going to the wealthiest and whitest communities."

Vaccination rates in Santa Monica, Beverly Hills and Brentwood are double the rates in East and South L.A.— the "places that lost the most from COVID," Choi said.

Find My Vax LA was inspired by a similar citizen-run resource in New York called TurboVax. Built by Airbnb software engineer Huge Ma, the site sends out real-time information about appointments on Twitter. Since late January, the account has amassed over 97,000 followers.

On Friday, Friedman launched his own Twitter bot. In the first hour, it churned out six updates listing 67 appointments. He programmed the bot to tweet about every new availability. Down the line—if supply in L.A. improves—he might change the threshold.

"I'm open to feedback," he said. "It's really just based on what people's needs are. Maybe it becomes an overwhelming number of tweets."

Like the alerts from TurboVax and LA Public Health, @Findmyvaxla_bot blasts out direct links to websites with open slots. And he's working on a plan to tweet in other languages, too.

Running the web application will cost Friedman anywhere from $50 to $100 each month, a bit more than necessary. But his eyes are set on the next few months, when the city will open eligibility to new tiers. Around 1,000 L.A. residents have visited the website since it went live late last month.

"I want to make sure that if there's ever rapid usage, that it can handle it," he said. "And make sure it won't go down."

The platform continuously scans a slew of websites for appointments through a process called 'scraping'. Unlike VaccinateCA, a similar volunteer-operated effort hinged on calling hospitals and clinics for that data, his system can update itself every few minutes.

But there are a few limitations to what Find My Vax LA can do. It might miss the open slots that don't get listed online, an issue VaccinateCA is tackling by calling those locations manually. Meanwhile, the threat of bots scalping for vaccine appointments has pushed companies like Vons to ramp up cyber protections.

Friedman's system can't get past those new blocks, so Vons and Walgreens are listed under a "Possible Availability" tab to indicate that users might try reaching those locations directly.

The site is hosted by Heroku, a cloud platform that Friedman says makes sharing his code easy. Across the nation, new appointment finding services are popping up almost weekly as a supplement to county-run sites. This week, a software engineer in Denver launched Vaccine Spotter. And volunteers in Washington state built CovidWA, an effort now supported by the state's department of health.

"If someone would like to build their own for their own municipality, we're really excited to share how we did this," said Friedman.

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