Note: OneIT success stories tend to focus on work products, of course. But sometimes a side project merits the spotlight.
At first, Brian Finley just wanted to help family members find COVID-19 vaccines.
It was early March. Iowa had just expanded vaccine eligibility to anyone with a high-risk health condition. But like many other Iowans, the Finley family struggled to find vaccine appointments on websites for providers like Hy-Vee.
“The Hy-Vee site only searched locations within 10 miles,” Finley says. “I checked the code and found we could easily expand to a thousand miles. Once we got our appointments scheduled, I started thinking about how to get vaccine-availability info on Twitter.”
After a few fits and starts, he launched Iowa Vaccine Alerts. The account automatically posts lists of Hy-Vee stores and other sites statewide that show vaccine availability.
It attracted about 800 followers virtually overnight. Within days, its audience had grown to 10,000.
“It was kind of shocking and a little overwhelming,” says Finley of the immediate response. Today, the account has nearly 28,000 followers and posts updates on vaccine availability every three hours.
In the weeks since it went live, Finley has dealt with technical challenges, pondered ethical questions, and even helped some users schedule their vaccine appointments. Fortunately, he’s accustomed to getting people and systems talking to each other.
Finley is a Java developer with the Custom Solutions and Integrations application team. He builds tools for researchers and others looking to solve problems.
“A lot of what I do at the UI is finding ways to get people—especially developers and non-developers—communicating on the same wavelength,” Finley says.
Once the Twitter vaccine alerts took off, Finley started to worry. Could his account give tech-savvy shot-seekers an edge over other Iowans? Would it contribute to vaccine inequities?
“I talked with doctors and pharmacists I knew and others who’d sent me DMs,” he recalls. “They all said this is how public health works—they just wanted to give as many shots as possible.”
Over time, it also became clear that vaccine supply exceeded demand in some smaller communities. The account was serving its original purpose: helping people find the vaccine wherever it happened to be.
Finley heard from others who’d launched similar grassroots efforts. One woman used the Twitter alerts and other tools to help arrange shots for some 700 people, average age 55.
He also heard from folks who needed hands-on assistance. Some had never used Twitter—they’d signed up to see the vaccine alerts and weren’t sure how the platform worked. A few had more vexing concerns.
“In a couple of instances, I got DMs from people who were undocumented and nervous about scheduling the vaccine,” Finley says. “I worked with directly with pharmacists to help them.”
The project had become a true community effort. “When I had some tech costs get out to hand, I put out a call for donations. Within 10 minutes, I’d received over $2,000,” Finley says. He’s covered his costs and donated the surplus to other causes, keeping followers fully apprised on where their money’s gone. (Finley also holds an annual Extra Life fund-raiser to benefit the UI Stead Family Children's Hospital through the Children's Miracle Network. It's generated over $30,000 in eight years.)
As Iowans get their shots and vaccine supplies continue to expand, posts listing available appointments have grown ever-longer. But Finley has no immediate plans to stop.
“I’m not going to delete the account,” he says. “Demand may grow once younger populations are eligible, or if we need booster shots.”
For now, Finley wants to keep helping other families return to a life that feels closer to normal.
“I have an 8-month-old daughter born just after the derecho,” he says, referencing 2020’s devastating windstorm. “She finally got to really meet her great grandparents for the first time, four generations together in the same house, on the same couch.”