Coronavirus

Georgia Vaccine Appointment Alert System Grew Out Of Sign-Up Frustration

A person is given the first of two doses of the Pfizer vaccine for COVID-19.
A person is given the first of two doses of the Pfizer vaccine for COVID-19.
Credit Ted S. Warren / Associated Press
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There’s now a way to get a text message when some COVID-19 vaccine appointments open up in Georgia, thanks to an Atlanta ex-lawyer turned code writer. Just text vax to 844-554-4024, answer a couple of questions, and you’re set. There’s no need to download an app.

“It’s really a text-based chatbot,” said inventor Ben Warlick who took a break from his job as a lawyer last year to work on his startup idea. It’s a computer code that scans local, state and federal government websites for all kinds of information like zoning notices, committee meetings or new regulations that would be hard for people to keep up with.

“My idea was to focus on this to make some AI (artificial intelligence) code to scan this information and then get it out to people,” he said.

For example, if you want to know whether a tree is slated for removal in your neighborhood, Warlick’s code could notify you by scanning the city of Atlanta tree removal registry for you.

Two weeks ago, he was trying to get a COVID-19 vaccine appointment for his mother-in-law and checked her County Health Department website.

“And it said something like ‘No appointment right now, but we expect appointments to open up in the next few days,'” he said. “So, like everyone else, I just started refreshing and refreshing and refreshing all over again, and then I thought, ‘I have this code I have already written, and it would work here.’”

He spent a weekend rewriting his code for the county website.

“The next day, it sent me a notification when new appointments were posted,” and his mother-in-law was able to get a vaccine. Warlick figured others could use the system as well, and he set up a simple way for other people to get in on the action. He started advertising it on NextDoor.

“It took off from there,” he said. Soon too many people were using the local phone number he used for the texting service.

“I hadn’t even thought this through, but there is technical limitation on the weight of text message, and I was hitting it this weekend when so many people were trying to get on it,” he said.

So Warlick upgraded to the 844-554-4024 number, which can handle the volume. He can’t afford the five-digit code services many companies use, he said. More than 16,000 people have already signed up.

Anyone in Georgia can register with their county, but so far, he’s actively scanning Clayton, DeKalb, Gwinnett, Rockdale, Newton, Cobb and Douglas counties.

“For Fulton and a total of 77 counties that do not post new appointments online, they will get a text message with info on how to register with the county online or by phone,” he said.

The texting service does not make the appointment for you. It just tells you when they’re available.

Warlick says he’s now working on getting non-government vaccine sites added.

“I’m working on Publix and Kroger notifications,” he said. “They have not had appointments for a while, but hopefully, they will have appointments again, and I will add notifications.”

The text service is free, and Warlick is not making any money on sharing his code. He just hopes many people who want vaccine notifications are also interested in other government data once he gets his startup off the ground.

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