‘VaccineTime’ Twitter bot lets you know when an appointment is available

Screenshot of the @vaccinetime Twitter bot.

By Dana Sung
Boston University News Service

BOSTON — With the state opening up its vaccine eligibility to residents 16 and older this week, booking an appointment may be more difficult due to the surge of eligible members. However, social media tools, such as “VaccineTime,” might provide a unique solution to this unique problem.

“VaccineTime” is a Twitter bot that sends out info regarding eligible vaccine appointments with links to its followers, integrating healthcare communications with the social media platform.

The bot was created by Dan Cahoon in conjunction with the biotech company, Ginkgo Bioworks, where he works as a senior software engineer. According to Cahoon, the bot works under the username @vaccinetime, tracking various state immunization websites for open COVID-19 vaccine appointments, tweeting them out as soon as they become available.

Cahoon said he created the bot because he saw how it could be beneficial to his vaccine-eligible colleagues who were having difficulties securing appointments. He soon realized the tool could be useful to everyone.

“Back in February, some of my co-workers became eligible to book their vaccine appointments,” Cahoon said. “But at the time, it was still very difficult to find open appointments. I saw that they were spending a lot of time — up to hours a day — scouring through these websites only to come up empty, which leads to frustration. So I thought, ‘wouldn’t it be a good idea for people to be notified when an appointment opens up?’”

Cahoon used a “web-scraping” technique to provide VaccineTime’s followers with links and subsequent information. Web scraping is a process used by programmers to extract information and data from websites by analyzing HTML code on the website’s back-end.

In this case, the extracted information is used to find available vaccine appointments and is paired with a code that automatically tweets that information out on the VaccineTime Twitter account. Cahoon said that he chose Twitter as the suitable social media platform because of its compatibility with bots.

Bots are software programs that are assigned with automated, repetitive tasks. Typically, bots are divided into two categories: the “good” and “bad” bots.

Bad bots are malwares that are often malicious to the central server and used for fraudulent purposes. Good bots help with the automated tasks that are very helpful in information gathering, for instance, gathering vaccination appointment links.

“Twitter came to my mind because it is extremely easy to sign up and it is very amenable to making bots,” Cahoon said. “I don’t think Facebook is as easy to make bots in the same way as with Twitter.”

With the vaccine eligibility opening up to 1.7 million residents in Massachusetts this week, there are many people scouring the internet to secure their vaccine appointments. One option for Massachusetts residents is using the state’s pre-registration system.

Through that portal, residents can pre-register for upcoming appointments at one of seven state-run vaccination sites: Gillette Stadium, Hynes Convention Center, Reggie Lewis Center, Danvers DoubleTree Hotel, Natick Mall, Eastfield Mall in Springfield and a former Circuit City in Dartmouth.

Due to the long waitlist under the state registration system, some may try registering for a vaccine appointment through a pharmacy or private hospital instead. However, the amount of websites may also make finding a vaccine appointment time-consuming.

Twitter bots like @vaccinetime and @macovidvaccines seek to cut down the time spent web scouring by automating appointment availability updates.

Since vaccines became available, Massachusetts used a phased rollout system to administer vaccines. Phase 1’s roll-out started on Dec. 15, 2020, with clinical and non-clinical healthcare workers who came in direct contact with COVID-19 patients.

Phase 2 started on Feb. 1, which expanded vaccine eligibility to people 75 and older. By April 5, the state made people 55 and older and people with one or more approved medical conditions eligible for vaccination.

During the initial phases, concerns about  people “jumping the line” for the vaccine were apparent on social media and covered by major media outlets. “Jumping the line” is described as when people who are not yet eligible for the vaccine lie about their status or medical conditions to receive the vaccine earlier. Some worried that @vaccinetime alerts could be used for people to “jump the line.” 

Julia Yang, a Brookline resident, is familiar with the Twitter account and said she believes social media can be a “double-edged sword.”

“I think in any use of social media platforms, there is a chance of it being misused,” Yang said. “It is a double-edged sword. I see why there can be questions and concerns with ‘skipping the line’ with this [Twitter account], but I also think it is helpful for people who don’t know how to search for specific appointments.”

Cahoon said that the purpose of the bot is to open up accessibility for people who do not necessarily have the time or ability to learn about the complex state vaccination system.

“I think that a web-based system like Twitter sort of creates inequities in and of itself and my hope is that @vaccinetime alleviates at least some of those by not requiring you to be super tech savvy,” Cahoon said.

Annette Yan, a Boston University student, became eligible on April 19 for the vaccine under state guidelines. She was on the pre-registration list for the state website.

“I’ve heard about web-scraping and Twitter bots being used for vaccine appointments and it definitely is interesting,” Yan said. “I love how transparent @vaccinebot is with the explanation and usage. Now that vaccine eligibility opened up, I’ll definitely be utilizing it soon.”

Currently, more than 2 million residents in Massachusetts are fully vaccinated against the coronavirus. And as of April 18, more than 3 million residents have received their first dose of the Moderna or Pfizer vaccine in the state.

Around 200,000 residents have received Johnson & Johnson’s single-dose vaccine, though this vaccine distribution has been momentarily halted at the recommendation of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

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