The mood on her Twitter feed was dark and full of anxiety, so LaShawn Toyoda, 36, decided to do something about it.
“People were really upset, scared and stressed out,” she says. “With the Olympics coming up, worries about the pandemic were exacerbated by the slow rollout of the vaccine and the lack of (English-language) information about the voucher system. They had no idea when they would get one, and resources in languages other than Japanese were scarce.”
Toyoda had a new set of skills that she could apply to the problem, as she had recently learned to code.
Originally from Maryland, she arrived in Japan after the country was hit by the Great East Japan Earthquake in March 2011. She worked as an English teacher until last spring, but left that job because she didn’t feel comfortable teaching in-person classes during the pandemic, potentially bringing the coronavirus home to her baby. As she was trying to decide on her next step, Code Chrysalis co-founder Yan Fan reached out to her and suggested she try learning to code.
Toyoda had always thought that coding might be interesting, but at the same time wasn’t sure if she could really do it. She decided to give it a try, anyway.
The course was intense, “like being in finals week of university except it lasts for three months.” She adds that it’s deceptive, because “everyone’s so nice and so friendly, but the boot camp is brutal. There is a constant pressure to learn and cram so much, and a mountain of homework if you don’t finish everything in class. Some people doubt you can learn to code in a couple of months, but it is possible when you are coding up to 16 hours a day.”
Then, on a Sunday night earlier this month, she asked her husband to watch her toddler and sat down to do some coding. The result was an open-source database of clinics offering waiting lists for appointments to get a COVID-19 vaccine across the country: findadoc.jp.
Toyoda announced her creation on Twitter and woke up the next day to find there had been more than 60,000 requests to access the database, and that it had exceeded the free quota of her hosting service due to the large number of queries.
“I thought people needed a service like this, but I didn’t realize just how badly they needed it and that the demand would be so huge,” she says. “By the end of the second day, the database hit over 300,000 requests as people scrambled to find clinics offering vaccinations.”
For the next week Toyoda hardly slept, juggling work on the database with her full-time job and taking care of her young daughter. Meanwhile, people came out of the woodwork to support her. Experienced developers from companies like Google, Amazon, Indeed and Mercari volunteered their help with the coding and know-how on managing such a project. Volunteer translators stepped up, and the database is now available in 17 languages.
“I can’t really take all of the credit,” she says. “I started it, but the community really jumped in and helped to build it. I think it came at just the right time. So many people felt hopeless about the vaccine situation, but this gave them a way to do something.”
Having never worked on a project of this scope before, Toyoda has had to learn quickly. For example, the moment she thought she had everything ready and made her repository public, she got a warning from Google that she had left some secret keys on the internet that weren’t supposed to be there. Fortunately, the many volunteers have been able to help.
“They’ve been coaching me through the process without taking over the project, which is really nice,” she says. “I feel like I’ve learned even more now than I did when I was taking programming courses just because I’m actually working on a real application.”
You might think that a project like this would be extremely stressful, but Toyoda seems to be taking it in stride.
“When things get really worrisome or heated, that’s when I tend to buckle down and focus on what I can do to improve the situation,” she says. “Not just for myself, but also for others.”
Due to the many submissions from users, the database has grown from the handful that Toyoda originally posted, and currently covers about 50 clinics, with the number constantly fluctuating as clinics fill their slots and are then removed from the list. She has added a function for users to report when a clinic no longer has spots available or if their requirements have changed. That also means if spots become available, a clinic can go back on the list. It’s good to keep checking back to see if one opens up near you.
Toyoda says she will keep the project up through the end of the vaccination period. After that, she plans to pursue her original vision, created while she was studying at the Code Chrysalis bootcamp last year, of creating a database of doctors who can speak multiple languages. She is viewing this as a long-term project, and is thinking of starting a non-profit organization to house it.
Toyoda is enjoying her new career as a programmer, and wishes she had made the career change from English teaching earlier. She’s also glad that she has been able to use her new skills to help the community, and asks that people continue to submit clinics to the database so that everyone can get vaccinated as soon as possible.
“There’s a really small but great community of people here in Japan from all over the world that want to help each other and contribute to Japanese society,” Toyoda says. “I just created a tool that empowers them to do so.”
Japan Find-a-doc Covid19 Vaccine Database Founder LaShawn Toyoda Ep266. 🎥Subscribe: https://t.co/mtafmDqvOw #live #findadoc #findadocjp #findadocjapan #vaccinations #availablevaccinations #vaccinationsjapan #COVID19Vaccine #lashawntoyoda https://t.co/C5IkwJLmYn
— JJWalsh 🌿⛩️🏝️🐱🌺☀️ (@jjwalsh) June 29, 2021
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