Politics

Vaccine scheduling sites are terrible. Can a new plan help Chicago fix them?

The city is partnering with Zocdoc for the first citywide rollout of a vaccine scheduling site.

Vaccine scheduling sites are terrible. Can a new plan help Chicago fix them?

Chicago's new partnership with Zocdoc could address some of the issues with vaccine scheduling in America.

Photo: National Cancer Institute

Christina Hildreth Anderson knows it's too hard to schedule an appointment to get a COVID-19 vaccine — and not just because the vaccine supply is limited.

It's also because the websites that states and local governments hastily stood up over the last few months to help people find and schedule their vaccinations almost universally suck. They crash and time out under a flood of traffic, or show open appointments that disappear once you've entered all of your personal details. In Chicago, where Anderson heads up operations for the city's COVID-19 response, finding a vaccine requires hopping around a map of the city and clicking through a bunch of different pharmacy websites, only to find they're all booked up.

It shouldn't be that way, but it is that way, Anderson says, because public health departments in cities across America are chronically underfunded. So while she and her team of a few hundred city employees spent the last year working 18-hour days to get testing up and running and preparing to actually receive the vaccine and store it in ultra-cold freezers, the more mundane task of building a website that works fell down the list of priorities.

"It's like when you're under water, it's hard to get over water and plan ahead," Anderson said. "The software planning came when it came."

Now, however, Chicago is trying a new approach, becoming the first city in the country to launch a partnership with the health care scheduling company Zocdoc. Starting Tuesday, Chicagoans can go to Zocdoc, enter their location, pull up a list of available appointment times at a range of different facilities and book one directly through the app. At launch, Zocdoc will list appointments at eight facilities, including two of Chicago's biggest health care providers, AMITA Health and Rush University Medical Center. It's a service Zocdoc is offering to the city of Chicago, and any city in the country that wants it, for free.

To Anderson, the appeal was getting to take the technical lift off of hospitals' and city officials' hands. "The last thing a hospital in a pandemic wants to hear is: 'Here's a giant IT project,'" she said.

The lack of resources isn't the only reason that it's been so challenging for cities and states to build vaccine scheduling sites that work well, said Oliver Kharraz, CEO of Zocdoc. Building any online portal that can connect to the various electronic health record and scheduling systems that hospitals, pharmacies and clinics use is a massive undertaking. Building a user-friendly one is even harder.

"Those are things that aren't top of mind for a lot of these executives. Hospital execs don't look at abandoned shopping cart stats like an online retailer," Kharraz said.

These shoddily-created websites are more than just a nuisance. The time it takes to navigate them and to try, try again can also make it harder for working people and older people to land a slot, despite their risk factors. That can contribute to a growing divide in cities across the country, including Chicago, where wealthier, white people are dominating vaccine scheduling systems over low-income people and people of color.

But this problem that has been so insurmountable for health systems and local governments is effectively Zocdoc's entire business model. It's spent the last 13 years streamlining the process of getting people doctor's appointments. Last month, the company launched its vaccine scheduler with New York's Mount Sinai Health System and was almost immediately booking 100 vaccine appointments per minute. The Chicago partnership is the first with local government backing.

Anderson said she reached out to Zocdoc in mid-January, after a member of her COVID-19 response planning team suggested they look into Zocdoc for vaccines. "We took it to Zocdoc, and they said, 'We're already doing this. We'd love to do it with you,'" Anderson said.

Within two weeks, it was ready for launch. Kharraz said Zocdoc is currently in talks with other cities and should be able to announce them soon. It's also not the only tech company diving into this work. Google is working on integrating vaccine locations into Google search and maps starting in Arizona, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas. And in San Diego and Los Angeles, a techie SWAT team has worked with the California state government to stand up a scheduling tool called MyTurn.

Still, there's only so much user-friendly design can accomplish when there's not enough vaccine to go around. Even in Chicago, people are bound to log onto the city's new Zocdoc scheduler to find that all the appointments are booked. "Candidly, those appointments are going to go lightning-fast," Anderson said.

Until more vaccines become available, Anderson is hoping this new tool can at least prevent an already frustrating and scary experience from also becoming a waste of time.

Protocol | Fintech

How European fintech startup N26 is preparing for U.S. regulations

"There's a lot more scrutiny being placed on fintech. We are definitely mindful of it."

In an interview with Protocol, Stephanie Balint, N26's U.S. general manager, discussed the company's approach to regulations in the U.S.

Photo: N26

N26's monster $900 million funding round announced Monday underlined the German startup's momentum in the digital banking market.

Stephanie Balint, N26's U.S. general manager, said the funding will be used for expansion and also to improve "our core offering to make this the most reliable bank that our customers can trust," she told Protocol.

Keep Reading Show less
Benjamin Pimentel

Benjamin Pimentel ( @benpimentel) covers fintech from San Francisco. He has reported on many of the biggest tech stories over the past 20 years for the San Francisco Chronicle, Dow Jones MarketWatch and Business Insider, from the dot-com crash, the rise of cloud computing, social networking and AI to the impact of the Great Recession and the COVID crisis on Silicon Valley and beyond. He can be reached at bpimentel@protocol.com or via Signal at (510)731-8429.

The way we work has fundamentally changed. COVID-19 upended business dealings and office work processes, putting into hyperdrive a move towards digital collaboration platforms that allow teams to streamline processes and communicate from anywhere. According to the International Data Corporation, the revenue for worldwide collaboration applications increased 32.9 percent from 2019 to 2020, reaching $22.6 billion; it's expected to become a $50.7 billion industry by 2025.

"While consumers and early adopter businesses had widely embraced collaborative applications prior to the pandemic, the market saw five years' worth of new users in the first six months of 2020," said Wayne Kurtzman, research director of social and collaboration at IDC. "This has cemented collaboration, at least to some extent, for every business, large and small."

Keep Reading Show less
Kate Silver

Kate Silver is an award-winning reporter and editor with 15-plus years of journalism experience. Based in Chicago, she specializes in feature and business reporting. Kate's reporting has appeared in the Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, The Atlantic's CityLab, Atlas Obscura, The Telegraph and many other outlets.

Apple’s new MacBooks are the future — and the past

After years of reinventing the wheel, Apple's back to just building really good ones.

Apple brought back the ports.

Photo: Apple

The 2015 Pro was, by most accounts, one of the best laptops Apple ever made. It was fast and functional, and it had a great screen, a MagSafe charger, plenty of ports, a great keyboard and solid battery life. If you walked around practically any office in Silicon Valley, you'd see Pros everywhere.

Many of those users have been holding on to their increasingly old and dusty 2015 Pros, too, because right about when that computer came out was when Apple seemed to lose its way in the laptop market. It released the 12-inch MacBook, an incredibly thin and light computer that made a bunch of changes — a new keyboard and trackpad design chief among them — that eventually made their way around the rest of the MacBook lineup. Then came the Touch Bar, Apple's attempt to build an entirely new user interface into a laptop.

Keep Reading Show less
David Pierce

David Pierce ( @pierce) is Protocol's editorial director. Prior to joining Protocol, he was a columnist at The Wall Street Journal, a senior writer with Wired, and deputy editor at The Verge. He owns all the phones.

Image: Christopher T. Fong/Protocol

Imagine a company where there are no meetings — just time for deep, focused work punctuated by short conversations on Slack and project updates on Trello.

Now imagine a company where the no-meeting ethos is so ingrained that it's possible to work there for 10 years without ever speaking face-to-face with a single coworker, and for your boss to not even recognize the sound of your voice.

Keep Reading Show less
Michelle Ma
Michelle Ma (@himichellema) is a reporter at Protocol, where she writes about management, leadership and workplace issues in tech. Previously, she was a news editor of live journalism and special coverage for The Wall Street Journal. Prior to that, she worked as a staff writer at Wirecutter. She can be reached at mma@protocol.com.
Protocol | Workplace

#AppleToo activist says Apple fired her for deleting apps from her devices

Janneke Parrish says she was dismissed after deleting Robinhood, Pokemon Go and Google Drive from her work devices during an investigation inside the company.

The Apple Too movement is trying to organize Apple workers into a collective movement.
Photo: Bloomberg via Getty

Unlike most other companies, Apple asks that its employees use their work phones like personal ones — and for five years, Apple program manager Janneke Parrish did as she was told. But last week, when Apple asked Parrish for her devices in an internal investigation, she was afraid Apple would see her personal and private information. She disobeyed orders and deleted apps like Robinhood, Pokemon Go and Google Drive. Then Apple fired her.

Keep Reading Show less
Anna Kramer

Anna Kramer is a reporter at Protocol (Twitter: @ anna_c_kramer, email: akramer@protocol.com), where she writes about labor and workplace issues. Prior to joining the team, she covered tech and small business for the San Francisco Chronicle and privacy for Bloomberg Law. She is a recent graduate of Brown University, where she studied International Relations and Arabic and wrote her senior thesis about surveillance tools and technological development in the Middle East.

Latest Stories