Tuesday, February 02, 2021


You may have read by now that the online vaccine management system that the Trump administration paid US$44M for from the consulting firm Deloitte in a no-bid contract is a disaster. Riddled with bugs like making and then randomly cancelling appointments. States are giving up and cobbling together their own solutions.

Cat Ferguson, "What went wrong with America’s $44 million vaccine data system?", MIT Technology Review, 2021-01-30
About half my career has been spent doing work funded by the U.S. government, either in Big Science or in the Military and Intelligence sector. What I found the most interesting about this mess is one of the reasons Deloitte got the non-competitive contract in the first place. Did they have any experience in large scalable distributed medical computer systems? No. Infectious diseases? Nope. Vaccination programs? Not even. What they had experience in is government contracting. And the procurement systems implemented by the feds make it difficult - not to mention less profitable, compared to other work in the commercial sector - for anyone who isn't already doing government contracting to do government contracting.

I'm reminded of when Google bought Boston Dynamics. The robot company had been mostly funded by DARPA, the U.S. DoD's advanced research arm, the folks that have a track record of bringing us things like the Internet. Once Google bought Boston Dynamics, they declined to renew the DARPA contract. The DoD-related industry was surprised; I read articles in the DoD trade and national security press about this at the time. But I doubt many in the high tech industry even batted an eye. Selling to the Feds used to be a big thing. Now, not so much, compared to the global market. (Google eventually sold the company to Hyundai. Yet another bleeding edge albeit immature technology transferred to a foreign company.)

Another issue that occurs to me is how long it takes to design, develop, test, and deploy a product as big and complex as the proposed vaccine management system. Contrary, I suspect, to expectations in the White House at the time, a commercial effort of this type would take a year or two, all told. Regardless of the sales pitch from any consulting company, there is no fast path. That's why you have to anticipate this kind of need, and address it well in advance of it becoming a necessity. It's like insurance: you have to buy it before you need it, with the understanding - and the hope - that you never actually have to use it.

I don't know how, but we need to do better.


Fazal Majid said...

They should have tasked the US Digital Service with this:


Chip Overclock said...

Mrs. Overclock (a.k.a. Dr. Overclock, Medicine Woman) remarked that the State of Colorado already has a state-wide immunization system that is available to health care providers, including through our own HMO's web site. Being a health care provider, she has already gotten her first vaccine shot, and verified as a patient through the web portal that it's on her state vaccination record. Colorado probably isn't the only state to have done this. (She mentioned that the U.S. DoD surely has such a system too, since service members get a host of immunizations.) So why not start with a system that already works and already scales up pretty big? Neither she nor I knows. But I'm guessing that the providers of such systems aren't already contractors with the U.S. government.