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by Eden Debebe

Inspired by a tweet from a U.S. journalist, Ontario engineers Zain Manji and Ashish Yelekar teamed up to create a text-messaging service that finds the three COVID-19 vaccine clinics closest to the user and sends the list straight to their phone.

The kicker: it only took the pair three hours to code.

“We’re already very familiar with the whole technology landscape and what it takes to build these types of products,” Manji told OMNI News.

“So just having that good understanding at the beginning helped us move a lot faster. It’s honestly a very simple app, right? You just text it with your postal code and then the code takes the postal code and finds the closest vaccination site and just sends it back to you. It’s literally less than one hundred lines of code.”

Since launching on April 30th, Manji said the response has been overwhelming, with over 100,000 participants in the first five days.

“Tons of messages from people saying that they’ve been able to book a vaccine appointment through it and even get on a wait list,” Manji said.

“And everyone’s been very supportive so far. I think everyone’s just happy that maybe there’s another tool that they can use to help find a vaccine appointment.”

Finding a vaccine appointment in Ontario has been likened to finding a needle in a haystack. With details on COVID-19 vaccination pop-ups being scattered across government web sites and various social media pages, many Ontarians have taken to social media to express their frustrations around the difficulty of finding the details they need before it’s too late.

 

 

Manji hopes the text-messaging service can help simplify the process.

“There has been a little bit of confusion with the rollout,” Manji said.

“There’s a lot of information coming from a lot of different sources and they try to make it so that the web site is your central source of information, but when there’s articles or different media outlets that are saying different things, sometimes it can be confusing.”

With the bulk of information being shared on Instagram and Twitter, Manji adds that the service is great for people who just aren’t that tech savvy.

“Maybe some people aren’t that familiar with using a web site or maybe not that comfortable with the web site or Twitter or any social media,” Manji said.

“And they just have their phone and they just want to know a list near them and not have to go and maybe like check the web site every so often. So this is just a simpler tool that people can use that’s as easy as just texting your six digit or six character postal code.”

After launching in Ontario and expanding to British Columbia this week, Manji said they have plans to offer the text-messaging service in Quebec, Alberta and other provinces.

When it comes to future improvements to the service, Manji said they’re aiming to expand the information provided in each text message.

“We would love to try to add a little bit more information in the text messages, such as the type of vaccine that’s being offered at each location,” Manji said.

“We would love to kind of show the current availability of appointment slots open, it’s just kind of tough right now because that data is not really accessible. So once that data becomes accessible to us, our phone number can then pick it up.”

This service is one of many run by volunteer based groups helping people get vaccinated, and government health groups are starting to take notice. The Vaccine Hunters’ Twitter page is a now a verified account with over 240,000 followers that just recently partnered with the City of Toronto as an official source of COVID-19 information. Manji said their text-messaging service could soon be following suit.