This software engineer built a new NSW vaccine website in 48 hours

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NSW’s vaccination booking websites weren’t working as well as they could. This software engineer built a new one in 48 hours.
Image: covid19nearme.com.au/
  • A software engineer from Sydney has developed a site that aggregates information from multiple NSW government websites to help people more easily book to get vaccinated.
  • Since the start of the pandemic, private citizens have been developing tools to make the government’s COVID-19 data more accessible.
  • “If there’s gaps, or the government’s not doing a great enough job, people will step up and report it,” said Anthony Macali, creator of the site Covidlive.
  • Visit Business Insider Australia’s homepage for more stories.

Early on Sunday morning Fraser Hemphill posted to the Reddit message board r/Australia; “I struggled to book a vaccine, so I made a site that DINGS where there are vaccines available (Sydney).”

Underneath he posted a link to his site, covidqueue.com

Within hours the post had risen to the top of the page, and attracted comments from frustrated Sydneysiders struggling to book vaccination appointments via the government site.

“Dude I just got vaccinated because of your website. Unbelievable,” one user posted.

“The entire resources of both state and federal government…people who manage billion dollar projects…have been unable to deliver a critical tool in the midst of a pandemic that some dude on Reddit whipped up,” another user said. 

Hemphill, a software engineer based in Sydney said he created the site to help a friend who works as a nurse and was eligible for the Pfizer vaccine to find an available appointment.

“She showed me how she was continuously reloading four different gov. sites hoping for an available time slot,” Hemphill told Business Insider Australia via email.

“I knew I could automate this and help her find one more easily so I whipped up a script and she was able to find a booking immediately,” he said.

Hemphill then realised he could help other healthcare workers in the same boat, and built the site last week. 

While the NSW vaccination program has accelerated since the most recent outbreak, only 27% of disability workers and 28% of aged care workers in Australia are fully vaccinated against COVID-19

The site checks the availability of bookings through four different government sites and alerts the user when time slots at vaccine centres become available, as well as when there are two bookings available three weeks apart. 

It also links to the official NSW government sites that check eligibility, leading users there to book their vaccine appointment.

Hemphill said feedback for his site had been positive; “it then got sent around the hospital and really grew from there.”

Since the start of the pandemic, governments on a federal and state level have faced criticism for failing to provide both accessible data and effective technology for citizens. Projects like the $10 million CovidSafe app have failed to deliver results and the current NSW site for booking vaccinations has faced criticisms around its slowness, clunky registration process, and conflicting information between the site and that of healthcare providers.

It’s a factor that has led several people to step in and create platforms that seek to fill these knowledge gaps, with some now providing insights and data to government agencies and the media — including the ABC.

‘I decided to build it myself’ 

Ken Tsang, a 24 year old developer from Sydney created the data mapping site Covid19nearme during the Northern Beaches outbreak last year when he wanted a better visualisation of virus infection hotspots than the tables released by the NSW government.

“It was around a week’s work to begin with,” Tsang told Business Insider Australia. 

Tsang said at the time the state government was “putting out these massive lists of exposures” that were difficult to understand geographically. 

“I was like, if I’m struggling, a lot of other people are struggling as well,” he said. 

At the time the NSW government was providing public access to data feeds, he explained, which made it easy for him to scrape the data and use it for his site. 

Anthony Macali, a reporting manager by trade, felt much the same way.

He told Business Insider Australia that when the country first locked down, he expected he’d be able to access current information about case numbers, but the federal health website was updating its dashboard once or twice a day.

“I thought this wasn’t good enough,” he said. 

“Every state and territory was pretty much running their own thing and there was no place where you could get it all collated together. 

“And so perhaps in frustration and absence of any other reporting, decided to build it myself,” he said. “And it just took off.”

He’s run the site Covidlive for the past 16 months, which feeds near real-time government COVID-19 data onto a single web page. 

Macali said in around March this year, when there were few cases, the site was receiving around 30,000 unique visitors a day. Now it sees close to 100,000.

‘People will step up and report it’ 

Macali thinks people have flocked to his site and others like it because access to information that is clear and accurate makes people feel in control, even if they don’t have any power over the situation they’re in. 

“Probably the most important piece of feedback I got from doing all the work was that it didn’t matter how bad the numbers were, the fact that I was consistently reporting on it gave people a sense of control,” he said.

Macali said his site has had an impact on government reporting, too.

He said from July last year there was “a big push for postcode data,” which wasn’t being used when reporting cases in Victoria at the time, but which he pushed them to provide. 

“I think the first day postcode data was available on the site, I had 300,000 visitors that day,” he said. 

Tsang said that while the level of detail in the COVID-19 data the government makes publically available is high, it’s still difficult to access on state and federal government websites. 

He deals with government data, which is still released as PDFs, with a scraping tool that transfers the files into a spreadsheet. 

“I’ve made this information available to anyone…and so now sites like ABC and SBS take information from the feed I publish, and use it because there’s no better feed to do it and the government doesn’t provide it,” Tsang said.

Macali said he’s seen access to in-depth, publicly available information around the pandemic become more accessible as it’s dragged on — with engagement spiking in cases where the data provides a pathway to reopening. 

“It was definitely part of the roadmap out during the second wave in Victoria.

“And now with NSW vaccination targets or trying to get community numbers down,” he said. 

Hemphill said sites like his are a result of bureaucracy’s inability to create effective tech under time pressures.

“I think it’s unfortunate that we ended up with multiple systems to book a vaccine for each hub,” he said. “However, I understand the time pressure of the situation when it was developed,”

He said for him it was a sense of civic responsibility to fill in the gaps. 

“I’ve received several emails and messages from at-risk people who have been desperately trying to book for weeks and found that with CovidQueue they were able to book in minutes,” he said.

Macali said, especially in unprecedented situations, it’s motivating to know he can develop tools that will connect people to information that’s not easily accessible. 

“If there’s gaps, or the government’s not doing a great enough job, people will step up and report it.”

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