Within minutes of its 8 a.m. opening on Wednesday morning, the Alberta system allowing seniors to book for the COVID-19 vaccine had crashed.
By noon, a trio of Edmonton brothers had figured out the problem on the website and posted a solution on Twitter to helped others sidestep the glitch.
The issue, according to Kory Mathewson, a research scientist with Google’s DeepMind Technologies, was attached to one of the first steps of the form asking for a postal code.
“When you put in your postal code, it was trying to figure out the closest vaccine location to where your postal code is, but that’s a difficult computing science problem,” Mathewson told CBC Radio’s Edmonton AM on Thursday.
“So we said, ‘OK, what if it doesn’t need to be the closest one? What if you just kind of get on to the next step and then book whatever sort of clinic you choose is the closest one to you.'”
Mathewson, who got his PhD in computing science from the University of Alberta, was alerted to the problem by his older brother, who — like many Albertans — was trying to book appointments for their grandparents.
Ky Mathewson, an assistant professor of psychology at the U of A, had secured an appointment for their grandmother Mufty Mathewson, but when he went back to book his grandpa Bill, he “ran into a bit of quicksand on the online form.
“It really slowed down to a crawl,” Kory Mathewson said. “He tried to debug it … then he called in me and our younger brother.”
In short order, the brothers Mathewson — Kory in Montreal, Ky in Edmonton and Keyfer in Ottawa — diagnosed the problem, debugged it and deployed the solution.
“There was a small weak link in the chain. And I had an idea that I might remove that weak link and then reconnect the chain and then see if we could get onto the next step. And it worked. I booked my grandfather,” Mathewson said.
“It was just kind of jumping over that one step that was slowing everything down.”
“It was working for everybody. And we thought, ‘OK, well, we’ve got to get this message out there.'”
That’s when the brothers started sharing the instructions on Twitter — and quickly began hearing from grateful Albertans who’d used it successfully.
“Kory,” wrote one Twitter user, “your knowledge and help today, with booking these appointments has probably helped save the lives of many seniors … People who have been isolated, lonely, and struggling for a year. THANK YOU!!!”
An estimated 230,000 seniors age 75 and older were eligible for the vaccine when bookings opened up Wednesday morning. Seniors who are residents of public long-term care and designated supportive-living facilities have already received them.
In addition to the website issues, the 811 HealthLink phone line was flooded with calls.
On Thursday morning, AHS said that more than 72,000 Albertans had made appointments to be immunized, and added that the online booking tool has stabilized.
Mathewson said the sheer size of a cohort that is so motivated to be vaccinated was an unavoidable part of the issue.
“What could I do for my grandparents who I haven’t been able to see for a year? Finally, I can get on and do something. I can book them an appointment!” he said, describing the motivation that swept across the province Wednesday morning.
Developers are working on new technologies that would prevent a website being overwhelmed by users, such as queuing people in a holding area. However, he said, these types of software solutions are challenging.
“Being able to estimate how many people are going to hit something not just per hour, but per minute, is a pretty tricky situation,” he said.
However, reducing the size of the cohort — for example, by only allowing people born in a certain month or certain year to book at a given time — presents an equally difficult challenge in communicating the details in a manner that everyone understands, he added.
“It’s a balancing act trying to get everyone through the system,” he said.
“And, you know, people have lives. People are doing things. My grandparents, you know, I booked their appointment and I said, ‘I hope this time works for you.’ And my grandmother said, ‘Well, jeez, we had to cancel puzzle time.'”