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‘There’s so much gratitude’: engineer who created viral vaccine site for $50

Miranda Bryant in New York
·5-min read

Huge Ma first came up with the idea for his much-needed vaccination appointment-finding bot after discovering how complicated it was to book one for his mother.

“You had to basically open three tabs, one for each major government vaccine portal, and then refresh all day until you got an appointment,” said the 31-year-old software engineer from New York.

Inspired to see if there was anything he could build himself to help the thousands of New Yorkers scrambling to get appointments, he decided to “take a look under the hood” in January. Two weekends of coding later he had created TurboVax – a bot that finds available appointments across 53 different New York city and state vaccine sites and shares them on Twitter and on a website. It cost just $50 to set up.

Today the site gets over one million page views per day. To date, he estimates, tens of thousands of people have secured vaccine appointments using the bot, which has over 80,000 followers on Twitter, and Ma has been inundated with thank you messages. He has also had requests from people asking him to bring TurboVax to their city or state.

“The response has been incredibly overwhelming,” he said. “There’s been so much gratitude. Hundreds, thousands of emails from people who have gotten appointments through TurboVax, which is honestly kind of just mind-blowing, and humbling as well.”

The value of his creation has taken Ma by surprise. “I would never have thought that I could have built something that has such tangible impact on other people’s lives.”

But it also comes with a lot of pressure – especially for something that started as a side project. He single-handedly runs the service in his spare time from his day job working for Airbnb. Meanwhile, the site, built on Google Docs, is buckling under so much demand.

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“Technically it’s kind of a hack. It’s not built in the way that modern websites are supposed to be built,” said Ma, who outside of work is a big Knicks, Tottenham and Bridgerton fan.

But, he added: “These are the shortcuts that we take to put something in the world that we think is useful and I think that’s a trade-off that I would still make.”

TurboVax is one of multiple citizen-led services that have cropped up to help Americans navigate the vaccination booking process including NYC Vaccine List in New York and VaccinateCA in California.

Related: Covid 'angels': the volunteers helping at-risk strangers get vaccinated

Long term, Ma is still working out what his next steps are. “There is a huge need for tools like this. But I’m just one developer who did a side project that went viral.”

Amid the chaos and uncertainty of the vaccination rollout, the TurboVax Twitter feed has become a community hub for New Yorkers trying to get appointments and people trying to help each other out. It also shares information about wait times and other vaccine-related news (as well as some Knicks content). It is full of grateful messages, personal stories and photos of people getting their vaccinations.

“At the vaccination site yesterday at least 3 of the 7 people in the waiting room with me said they were there because of you. Thanks for helping us get vaccinated!” wrote one user. Another said: “Huge represents what is great about New York”.

But Ma, who grew up in Queens and lives in Manhattan, has also had to field messages of frustration – particularly when there were less vaccine appointments available.

The service is free, but Ma encourages users to donate to Welcome to Chinatown, an organisation supporting small businesses in the area and fighting racism against Asian Americans. So far he has raised over $53,000.

Incidents of anti-Asian hate and violence surged in the city last year, reports the Asian American Bar Association, and recent weeks have seen a spate of violent attacks against Asian Americans in New York and across the US.

“Asian Americans have always had to prove themselves as American enough and it is a burden that we carry everywhere … the attacks that have really spiked over the past few months, especially targeting the elderly and Asian businesses is extremely discouraging,” said Ma.

He added: “While I have this platform, as an Asian American myself I can do more than what is expected and highlight a group and an environment that needs changing.”

Vaccine distribution has come under heavy scrutiny in New York and across the US as the rate of vaccination of white Americans far exceeds that of Black and Latino Americans.

Ma believes TurboVax helps “level the playing field” when it comes to vaccine distribution by making it easier to find out where it is available, but that better government policy and more offline outreach is needed.

“Not everyone has the ability to sit in front of a computer and refresh all day,” he said. “That said, I know that no system is perfect. This tech can help but it can’t solve other inequities in the system.”

After nearly a month of trying on the official websites, Gustavo Ajche, 38, who as a food delivery app worker is always on the go on his electric bike, managed to get an appointment using TurboVax this week and was vaccinated a couple of days later.

But he still faced significant obstacles. The only appointment was so far away from his home that he had to pay $50 to get a taxi there and he said there is a lot of fear and misinformation circulating.

“Even when I got my appointment people were like ‘oh, you’re crazy, why are you going to do it? It’s not safe’,” said Ajche, who is also a leader of delivery worker group Los Deliveristas Unidos. “I know how important it is for me to get vaccinated not only because I’m doing delivery work but also because I volunteer with the Workers Justice Project managing food pantries and I get in contact with a lot of people.”