Why Joe Biden’s Free Covid Testing Website Wasn’t a Dumpster Fire
They decided that the project should be planted and built at the United States Postal Service, which not only had the national database of valid addresses, but would ultimately deliver the packages. When Postal Service CIO Pritha Mehra heard about the project in December, she was given estimates that demand could peak at one million users per hour. Mehra, a 31-year veteran of the service, concluded that was a low prediction and multiplied the number by 20, striving for a safe capability. “Think about it-free covid tests,” she says. “Look at the number of people trying to buy them. And so we read 20 times the request that was projected, and I told my team that’s what we’re going to build. She had no problem recruiting this team. “It’s a technologist’s dream, to be able to do that,” she says.
Mehra knew this would be a challenge for the service’s architecture, which involved a combination of its own data centers and external cloud providers. His team implemented a triple-redundant system, hardening the architecture, separating the customer experience process from order fulfillment, and caching data multiple times during the process. And do endless load tests. “Believe me, there was a lot of work behind what seemed like a very simple site,” she says.
The entire project, from concept to a smooth rollout on January 18 (a day ahead of schedule), was completed in three weeks. The website itself was built by a relatively small team: three from the USDS and about 15 from the Postal Service, a dramatic contrast to the human waves the government used to marshal on such projects. And it worked – a conclusion verified by the lack of outrage at his performance. External analytics indicate that more than 68 million people visited the site in its first week. Even more strikingly, at one point on the 18th, the site was hosting 700,000 visitors at the same time. This far exceeded all traffic on other government sites combined. Even better: the government now says around 60 million people have ordered tests.
I was one of those visitors and marveled at how easily the Postal Service cleared the admittedly low bar for a successful exchange on a government site. I typed in my name and address, and that was it. Within seconds, I received an email confirming my request.
Was the deployment perfect? Of course not. Some addresses were not recorded because they were listed as commercial buildings. The postal service tells me they’re on the case and taking care of these issues. Additionally, there have been issues with the response time to the phone number provided for those without web access. But don’t blame the geeks for that!
Of course, registration is only the first step to actually delivering the tests; Will Postmaster General Louis DeJoy’s much-criticized operation get those tests to our homes? We’ll have to wait and see, but some people are reporting their packages arriving even before the promised 7-12 day window.