FindAShot.org was born out of the challenges I had helping my parents find a COVID-19 vaccine – specifically finding an appointment. On December 28, 2020, they became eligible in Texas to get the vaccine. We went to our local pharmacy and said, “we know you’re going to be getting a shipment of vaccines, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services.” Then the question was obvious: how do we get an appointment? They told us at the pharmacy that they didn’t know exactly how the process would work but that we would have to make an appointment, so we should go to this website. What I then learned was that every pharmacy was going to have a different website for booking appointments.
I understood very quickly that this method would become very painful. But, fortunately, knowing all the locations that were going to get shipments, it was simply a matter of going to each pharmacy to see if they had appointments available. That started the process of building an appointment checker that would check all of the pharmacy websites to see if they, essentially, had green boxes. Depending on availability, the calendar would have a grey or green box on each day. From there, it was about automating this checking process.
After finding appointments for my parents, I realized other people were going to need help finding appointments over the next several months, and that’s when findashot.org was born – a community service project that would help people find available COVID-19 vaccination appointments at local pharmacies. It started with Albertsons brands (e.g., Tom Thumb, Safeway, Vons, Acme), and then expanded to Kroger and, eventually, Walgreens and CVS. Now, we cover 20,000-25,000 locations nationwide. Instead of having to frequently search every single individual pharmacy location to find an available appointment, findashot.org is like a “KAYAK” for COVID-19 vaccine appointments – one streamlined search shows all pharmacy locations that currently have appointments available.
In terms of the need for automated online data collection, I’ll give the example from where I’m currently sitting. There are more than 80 pharmacy locations within a half-hour drive from my location. Most of them would require checking every individual store, and if we do the math for 80 stores – let’s say it takes around 20 seconds to check each one – that means it’s going to take more than 25 minutes just to check the 80 closest pharmacies, and that’s just checking them once. Based on what I’ve been seeing in findashot.org’s data, appointments book sometimes within seconds, but typically within minutes. That means in the time it takes to check all the nearest pharmacies, appointments could have become available and then already booked. It doesn’t include pharmacies that are farther away.
There’s one person I know who used findashot.org to book an appointment in Amarillo – he lives in Dallas – he drove nearly 6 hours to get the vaccine. There’s no way that he could have manually searched all the different pharmacies located within a 6-hour radius. The automated online data collection simplifies and streamlines the collection of that information – without it, it would simply take too much time to find a vaccine appointment.
Ultimately, the goal of this project is to make it possible for everyone who wants a vaccine to get vaccinated. Once this happens, the need for the project will dissipate.
In terms of coverage, the United States is pretty much on autopilot at this point in terms of online data collection. When it comes to other countries, it’s certainly a possibility for us to add coverage, but it all heavily depends on how these countries are administering the vaccines. The distribution mechanism in use dictates whether or not they can use this system (findashot.org).
Here in the US, the strategy has pretty much been to get the vaccine out to as many providers as possible. Therefore, you have as many people administering the vaccine as possible. However, this means that with every location, people need to make an appointment to get the vaccine.
The CDC’s partner, vaccinefinder.org, which was initially developed for H1N1, (the Swine Flu vaccine), helps find locations that have the vaccine doses in stock. It has now been adapted for the COVID-19 vaccines. The big challenge is that it shows you everywhere the vaccine is in stock: inventory availability. While inventory is necessary, it is not sufficient to get vaccinated in the US because most locations require an appointment. What you actually need is an appointment. That subtle difference is why findashot.org and a couple of our other partners, vaccinespotter.org and getmyvaccine.org, are so helpful: they find what people actually need. All three sites use essentially the same process of automated data collection to then aggregate appointment availability instead of inventory availability. In many ways, I would say our sites are “data creators” because we’re creating a new data point (i.e., available appointments).
Overseas, if there are appointment-based systems, then we can absolutely scale the methodology. However, if it’s a waitlist system, where you register your interest, there’s not much we can do to help.
We use the Bright Data Web Unlocker. Specifically, Bright Data has helped us scale our ability to perform automated online data collection (or in our case “creation”). In most cases, the pharmacies put in place preventative measures to stop “bad actors” from accessing the site. I am aware of nefarious individuals automatically booking appointments and then selling them. The mechanisms pharmacies have in place also block our good traffic; we’re simply trying to help people find appointments. The Bright Data Web Unlocker has helped us get unblocked in situations where we have encountered some of those issues that block the appointment checkers. It was very easy to integrate and get it running in about 5-10 minutes. It has also helped reduce the costs of our infrastructure because instead of trying to spin up new appointment checkers somewhere else to get unblocked, we simply switched over and used the Web Unlocker to integrate into the existing checkers.
I am very happy with the service. The best thing about it is that it’s kind of a “set it and forget it” type of thing. It was very easy to get it up and running and after it’s all set up, it essentially runs on autopilot. Other than topping up the billing account – that’s all that I need to do.