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Coronavirus vaccine bots: A force for good or agents of chaos?

Automated appointment finders well-intentioned but caused one Massachusetts county to be overrun with out-of-town bookings leaving no jabs for local residents

Joe Sommerlad@JoeSommerlad
Monday 08 March 2021 17:05
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People across the world awaiting a coronavirus vaccine have had to exhibit superhuman levels of patience and stoicism this spring, with the long-promised return to normality so close and yet still some way off.

But it’s not just young people in line who face frustration.

Those entitled to receive a jab due to their advanced years can also find the business of actually securing an appointment a trying one.

Tracking down a clinic with a free slot available can mean trawling through multiple local practice websites, each slightly different from the last, each subject to glitches and portal timeouts and few offering support by phone, their staff fully occupied already.

For older people less likely to be tech-savvy and without an obliging grandchild, friend or neighbour on hand to help them along, the process is likely to prove distressing.

Carolyn Ruvkun, an unemployed 29-year-old Brooklynite recently profiled by The New Yorker, is one person who has selflessly dedicated herself to guiding the elderly through it by acting as a “a fairy godmother” or “vaccine yenta”, booking over 100 appointments on behalf of vulnerable people unable to navigate the IT quagmire alone.

While not everyone is lucky enough to have access to an equivalent Good Samaritan, in the US at least, there is another way.

Amateurs have been setting up automated bots to scan the websites of clinics in search of new appointment information before posting their findings on social media - a practice known as “web scraping” - which is proving popular with grateful Twitter users relieved to have had their attention drawn to an open slot on behalf of an elderly relative.

South Jersey-resident Benjamin Shover tweeted his thanks to Vaccine Bot NJ, built by local software engineer Kenneth Hsu, on 23 February after securing an appointment for his father, writing: “THANK YOU! THANK YOU! THANK YOU! I GOT MY DAD AN APPOINTMENT! THANK YOU SO MUCH!”

Jeweller Theresa Kaz expressed her gratitude to the same bot on 4 March after it enabled her to book a jab for her 91-year-old grandmother.

“She got her vaccine today with an appointment we were able to secure because of you. So much love and appreciation for you Bot!” Ms Kaz wrote, posting a picture of her relative attending a clinic in a face mask.

Arizona travel writer Melissa Yeagar likewise took to social media to thank another bot, writing on 5 March: “Want to give a shout out to @kcvaccinewatch - both my brother (who delivers for FedEx) and my 70 year old parents were able to land vaccine appointments thanks to this Twitter bot!

“My parents are pretty internet savvy (they’re both on Twitter) but landing an appointments has been a struggle. I’m really thinking about people who don’t have someone to help them through this.”

But while such innovations have proven valuable tools in cutting through the bureaucratic confusion for some, others have accused the bots of creating inadvertent chaos.

In Massachusetts, a clinic in rural Franklin County moved to cancel an entire day of vaccinations on 19 February after 95 per cent of its 350 doses were booked up by out-of-towners prepared to make the journey from elsewhere in the state, like Boston or Cape Cod, at short notice, leaving none for local residents.

“Most of them were all gone at the same time, so we knew it was not a human being that could be doing it that quickly,” said Tracy Rogers, emergency preparedness manager for the Franklin Regional Council of Government, in conversation with Insider.

“Then we found out that there is both a Twitter hashtag and a website that people can go to and sign up and the bot will just scour the state website all day long signing them up.”

“It’s a wonderful service. It’s a great thing,” she added. “But the bot doesn’t read where we said this was restricted to Franklin County residents only.”

Aside from being unable to take into account local stipulations like this, eyebrows have also been raised regarding the bots’ modus operandi.

“There’s disagreement in the courts about the legality of web scraping,” Orin Kerr, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley, told ABC News of the process by which the programmes deploy Python coding to “read” websites and harvest them for information.

“It’s a murky area. It’s probably legal but it’s not something we have certainty about.”

It has also been suggested that “scalper bots” could be used to cheat the system by not only identifying potential vaccine sign-ups but automatically booking them with a view to their being illegally sold on thereafter.

US pharmacy giants Walgreens has already said its cyber-security teams are already moving to block such practices to ensure that “only authorised and eligible patients will have access to schedule a vaccine appointment”.

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