Dan Hon Profile picture
10 Feb, 40 tweets, 12 min read
I see we're talking about volunteer vaccination websites again, thanks to this (imho) irresponsible NYT article about "building a new [vaccination website] for $50".

Some observations and references:

1/ The headline is grossly irresponsible. It says the website "cost" $50, which likely means domain registration and hosting.

But Ma developed the site "in less than two weeks", so the headline values Ma's time and effort at... $0.

Workers like Ma earn more than $0.
2/ Off the top of my head, someone with Ma's skill and experience might get charged out to government at $180+/hour.

So we're probably at $14,000+ just for billing by time.

And yes, government IT frequently costs much more than it should for what's delivered.
3/ By implying that a "better" vaccine website can be delivered for $50, the NYT is contributing to the false belief that government services don't have to be funded to be delivered well, and to unrealistic expectation about how much good government costs.
4/ And like Spike says, the 2 weeks development time (valued at $0), also doesn't include ongoing support and maintenance. But sure, the website "only costs" $50.

5/ The website is "currently just some code running on some guy's laptop—anything as much as a wifi outage could knock it out." (turbovax.info/about).

It "only cost" $50.
6/ Anyway, back to the "$50". The developer is a software engineer at AirBnB. Glassdoor says *average base pay* for an Airbnb s/w eng is $182,758.

7/ The *highest salary* at the State of New York's Office of IT Services as of 2019 is $181,644.

As a reminder, Ma's s/w eng role has average base of $182,758.

8/ If you're going to go join an organization like @USDS or @18F, you'll be subject to the federal govenrment's GS pay scale, which tops out at $170,800 in Washington, D.C.

That's $81.84/hr.

9/ The "$50" website:

a) *doesn't book appointments*
b) appears to scrape 3 "portals" - two NYC sites and one NY State website.
c) and again, explicitly states that its reliability is, at best, "unclear"

10/ Here's what else you get for a "$50" vaccine website:

A disclaimer of liability (full text in image alt).

turbovax.info/about#supporte… A screenshot of the disclaimer on Turbovax.info:   This webs
11/ For the avoidance of doubt, Government services don't get to provide disclaimers. That's part of why they cost more than $50.

And websites are only *one part* of an end-to-end *service* that delivers an outcome or meets a user need.
12/ Now, you might think I'm shitting on the developer of the vaccine website.

I am not! There are significant, horrible problems with the local, last-mile of the vaccine process in the US. This site arguably *does* improve part of the experience.

13/ Do you want to know some of the structural reasons *why* TurboVax exists?

Regulations and delivery of care & social services in the US is byzantine *by design*. With the goal of federal->state-> county flexibility and delivery, it also ends up with the worst of both worlds.
14/ Combining the ideal of localized freedom and flexibility to deliver services with the need for high-level standardization and centralization is *difficult and complicated*. And also *underfunded from data & tech infrastructure*.
15/ This isn't just a technology problem (remember: you need to build the technology infrastructure to support this because in most cases *it doesn't exist* and you can't afford to hire Ma), but also fundamentally a *policy (thus political) and operations problem*.
16/ NY: 62 counties and 5 NYC boroughs. NYC has a GDP of $885 billion and a pop. of 8.3 million.

CA: 58 counties. LA County has a GDP of $727 billion and a pop. of 9.8 million.

Now you're a product manager with the legal responsibility to manage those stakeholders.
17/ Now assume you don't have the data sharing agreements in place to formally, *legally* get the data you need from each of those counties for vaccine delivery.

Assume the data infra doesn't exist either. Or the standards.
18/ Getting all of that in place is a big management job!

But look, I'm sure product managers and directors at e.g. tech companies relish negotiating the politics of 50+ stakeholders.

For $50.
19/ OK, so you've got the data sharing agreements in place with all your counties, who remember have delegated responsibility and flexibility for delivery *by design*.

Now do it for all your public/private partnerships in a consistent way, too.

20/ So we're 20 tweets in and as a reminder, the purported newspaper of record for the United States is implying, in its headline, that "vaccine websites" should cost in the order of magnitude of $50.
21/ I say this with experience that there are *so many things* that must be improved in how government (local, state, federal) uses technology to meet its promises to the people, like procurement, out of date standards, and overly focusing on following procedure vs outcome.
22/ but, and I cannot stress this enough, this idea of a lone tech hero or band of residents/citizens who will deliver radically better government services for trivial amounts of money is *toxic and harmful*. We'll never get the government services we deserve by relying on them.
23/ this stuff is *hard* and in some cases it is absolutely unnecessarily hard and counter-productive, but because it is hard, it isn't going to be *cheap* because doing it well takes time, effort, skill and experience.
24/ I am *incredibly disappointed* (I grew up in the UK, so read that as "spitting with rage") at the irresponsible lack of context in the NYT's article and its sensationalist, misleading headline.
25/ I last wrote about the complexity of last-mile vaccine delivery and the technology needed for it in this thread:

26/ Here's a consolidated link to that thread on the complexity of last-mile vaccine delivery technology:

27/ @hanaschank has been doing brilliant work on this and has a great article in Fast Company about vaccine appointment scheduling:

28/ Hana is also quoted in this MIT Tech Review article on vaccine distribution by Cat Ferguson and Karen Hao.

29/ Anyway, @nytimes, you should publish a counter to your irresponsible cheap, better vaccine website piece and I don't mean just in the @nytopinion section.
30/ One last thing.

You know *how* Airbnb and Uber and all those celebrated tech companies grew and delivered innovative services people love?

By *deliberately ignoring laws and regulations*.

Here's wikipedia entry on Airbnb's regulatory violations: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Airbnb#Re…
31/ Should vaccine websites cost $44m, what CDC bought from Deloitte, and is "plagued by problems and abandoned by most states"?

Maybe! Probably! Because they're in really complicated environments.

*They should also work and do what they need to do!*

32/ Here is another article on volunteer vaccine websites and tools, this one from MIT's Tech Review from 1 February.

It is much more responsible and acknowledges the complexity of the problem and environment.

33/ Another point on why the NYT's "$50" headline is irresponsible and harmful.

COVID-19 is exposing new groups of people to massive deficiencies in government services in general. These deficiencies include underfunding *as well as* bad/outdated/ineffective policy.
34/ For example, @ny_covid is translating their site into 30+ languages.

The point here is *government services should be accessible to the people who need to use them in general*. How many services are localized into 30+ languages at the best of times?

35/ But the NYT's story is celebrating that these sorts of deficiencies can be solved by volunteers for trivial amounts of money, discounting time and effort and complexity, *instead of showing that they point to systemic deficiencies in government*.

(1/2) OK wrapping up. I'm excited to be involved in the @codeforamerica Summit for the (4th?) year. If you're interested in government and technology and equity, sign up for announcements & availability AND tickets are just $25 this year!


(2/2) and for all of you working in government and adjacent, *thank you for your work* AND the @codeforamerica Summit call for proposals on the theme DESIGNING AN EQUITABLE GOVERNMENT TOGETHER is now open!

38/ end

I'm gonna go have lunch.

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More from @hondanhon

7 Feb

The “semantic web” promises a world-wide-web of machine-readable metadata that will enable efficient searching and the return of relevant information that is not possible with current search engines.
To achieve this goal, the Resource Description Framework (RDF) is a set of specifications that governs the encoding, exchange and usage of metadata.
Read 10 tweets
30 Jan
Things that can all be true:

1) last-mile, vaccine software can be really complicated when taking into account the 50 states and 3,006 counties in the U.S.

2) procurement regulations can be biased toward incumbents who have previously done business
3) previous business with government is not in itself an indicator of previous successful outcomes nor a predictor in itself of future successful outcomes

4) $44m may actually be a reasonable development cost, all considered
5) previous specific domain experience (e.g. last-mile vaccine distribution) is not itself an indicator or predictor of future success
Read 31 tweets

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