💉 vaccine hunting

what to put in our crosshairs

We are Building a Digital Ontario - unless it’s the roll out of life-saving vaccines in a global pandemic. That we are leaving up to volunteers.

🥂 But maybe it’s time to put the volunteer (read: corporate shadow tech) champagne back on ice. Maybe they can’t solve all our problems in 3 hours. Maybe they create new ones. 🍾

💸 I think everyone on Twitter would be even *more* annoyed if they knew that a few days after the City of Toronto awarded a $1.4M contract to a marketing company to execute the “Ward Immunization Campaign.” Because guess what? It’s worth investing in the vaccine roll out.


The volunteer-run Vaccine Hunters Canada perfectly captures the tension between grassroots organizations filling a gap and the government investing in public health products. Their halo hones in on the frustration that many in Ontario have been expressing - that so many are reliant on a Twitter account to get intel on vaccination opportunities. An online mutual aid group that is also deserving of the Order of Canada (*all 42k+ members on the Discord Channel!). 🇨🇦

The tool is a lot like those accounts that help you sniff out a PS5 drop: they don’t highlight that Sony is doing a terrible job distributing product, they highlight the scarcity of the product and then crowdsource the treasure hunt. It becomes a matter of what groups have the attention and resources to go out and get it.

☝️ Why didn’t the [provincial] government build something?

I think the answer is really complicated. It has to do with procurement, politics, and money. We should not assume that our civil service doesn’t have the capacity to build something meaningful - it does. We should ask why our political class did not prioritize facilitating a responsible roll out. Perhaps the customer acquisition opportunity and private interests won. Shopper’s Drug Mart just isn’t accountable to the public the way that the government is. *My kingdom for an FOI of that decision memo.

☝️ Is the province even equipped to build something meaningful?

You tell me: we’ve got 34 PHUs in Ontario that have been empowered to pursue their own booking approaches (call centres and websites) further fragmenting the space.

Then within, hospital networks operate like corporate/public health fiefdoms.

We still don’t have an integrated electronic medical record in Ontario after 25 years of trying. Those same challenges (mostly related to interoperability standards) underpin an integrated approach to vaccine booking.

*I’m not trying to suggest that because Ontario is uniquely complex, building a cool centralized tool is less possible - this is not an excuse, just context.

Now, how did Nova Scotia compel pharmacies to use their centralized booking system and Ontario didn’t? Unclear but I would love to read about that in Maclean’s or something. Like, did CANImmunize just do an awesome job negotiating? Is it true that they gave pharmacies iPads with their software pre-loaded? 🤷‍♀️

☝️ Are the Vaccine Hunters “better than nothing”?

For many, our bar (and mood?) is so low right now that we’re ready to rationalize that at this point, we just need to get vaccines in arms. While that’s true, it’s ALSO okay to be agitated by all the leap-frogging going on. Essential workers remain unvaccinated while the WFH crew has the freedom and mobility to scour the province for a shot.

There’s a ton of inequity with the pop-ups too - with long lineups in hotspot communities. While VaxHunters can certainly claim some credit for driving demand to these pop ups, it’s also worth giving credit to community centres for doing the on-the-ground work to being vaccines to communities where essential workers live. Air war, meet ground game.

*I can’t wait to see that data contrasting the postal codes people live in versus where they were vaccinated. It’s going to be devastating.

☝️ Who is this hurting?

Perhaps some independent pharmacies that have people screaming at them on the phone re: vaccine availability. People that don’t speak English as their first language, or with low digital literacy, or without a Twitter account, or without a personal vehicle to travel to an appointment, or without the luxury of paid time off or flexible work, etc.

💰 Another question is: who owns the vaccine allocation data?

It seems as though the vast majority of people are manually checking the websites for appointments. People building tools to check and automatically notify people for appointments is a very small subset of the volunteers.

Of interest: Shopper's Drug Mart and Wal Mart offers appointments and it appears that it is possible to build tools to automatically check on them. It does not seem that these large companies have open APIs that could allow civic tech innovators to leverage open data in building more or similar tools. This means that the firms COULD sue or do something scary like get a cease or desist if they claim that their API is proprietary - even though it’s a legitimate part of the public health system.

APIs could allow a small subset of especially tech-savvy volunteers to leverage this to build tools. This is common in open data but it's not clear if one can just use this data. VaxHunters has taken an official stance that they don't want to scrape these sites for reasons. Based on my read of the below Discord post, it seems like the Vaccine Hunters are worried about legal action. 😇

I admire that the Vaccine Hunters are so committed to not having any vaccines go to waste. As we look ahead to more supply, there will be less scarcity.

There are a ton of issues related to relying on a volunteer group for vaccine information that are worthy of our sustained interrogation. Government-run civic tech assumes responsibility for language translation, maintenance, scalability, geographic coverage, and consistency - and more.

We should definitely be mad that the Twitter account is the “best we have.” This dystopian game of Pokemon Go ~approach, this hideous Easter Egg hunt for your health is a bad knock off of Amazing Race. While the urge for product designers and builders to offer solutions is admirable and comforting, it glosses over what our expectations of the state should be when it comes to providing systems like this - if not building it in-house, then putting out a competitive tender. While the province of Ontario did not, the City of Toronto did invest in marketing support (an outreach campaign).

The other evening during my nightly doom-scroll, I came across the above texting tool. I wonder if maybe building isn’t the “hard” part - maintenance and scalability of infrastructure, and translation into a range of languages - who is going to do that? How much is it worth?

Presenting a product as “easy” avoids tough policy questions about who *should* build this.

🧵 The thread below from Dan Hon discusses the issues with volunteer vaccination websites really well.

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As we continue the “hunt,” for answers and accountability, let’s not lose sight of the province - especially in light of big new digital plans.

Vass Bednar is the Executive Director of McMaster University’s new Master of Public Policy in Digital Society Program.