One month ago, Abigail McHugh was trying to book a vaccine appointment for her mother in Central New Jersey but found the process both difficult and tedious.
McHugh, a senior majoring in computer science and a captain on the Binghamton University swimming and diving team, used her frustration to create her own website called VaxxTrackNJ.com, which automatically tracks vaccine appointments in Central New Jersey.
“I realized that it could be done much faster via computer,” McHugh said. “I had the skills to build the solution, and I knew it would help people.”
The app currently serves Monmouth, Ocean and Middlesex counties. VaxxTrackNJ.com also has a Twitter counterpart: @vaxxtracknj. According to McHugh, prior experience served her well in expediting a solution to her problem.
“The thing that I built is called [a] web crawler, and I had already had experience building web crawlers and doing web scrapings — pulling information from websites — so I knew the solution to this would not take that long,” McHugh said.
According to McHugh, there is just one other centralized vaccination site for New Jersey residents. However, the site is only a centralized list of websites that the user has to manually check. McHugh’s website automatically scans the portals of vaccine websites for openings and key words.
“It’s up to you to spend all of your time clicking and clicking and clicking through dozens of websites [on the other vaccination website],” McHugh said. “In my opinion, they’re not doing a good job of making it a centralized, unique experience for users and that’s why using services like VaxxTrackNJ and other Twitter accounts that are tweeting out manual updates have such a large community response because the government has done such a poor job.”
In order to maintain VaxxTrackNJ, McHugh dedicates two to four hours a day to her website, volunteering her time and skills to serve her community while also balancing her commitment as a student-athlete. McHugh’s current plan is to expand her services to other New Jersey counties while continually improving the website.
While McHugh now has a passion for computer science and utilizing those skills for the benefit of others, she originally started as a biomedical engineering major at BU.
“I took physics and hated it and did terribly and realized that engineering is all physics, so I knew I needed a change,” McHugh said. “At the same time, I took a coding class through engineering and I really liked it. Biomedical engineering is a really niche major that puts you in a specific career path while computer science is the opposite and you can kind of do whatever you want and that’s what attracted me to it.”
The head of the computer science department told McHugh that the department typically admits between two and three transfer students per year, but she was determined to be one of those students.
“Computer science is the hardest major to transfer to at [BU] so I basically spent the entire summer calling the head of computer science every single day and telling her how much I wanted to be in the major and what I had done to teach myself Python, which is what I used to create this website,” McHugh said. “I was basically just trying to pitch myself to the program and I eventually was admitted.”
After McHugh got the word out about her website, she was invited onto the Fox 5 New York morning show.
“When I first started the website, I just posted it on Facebook groups,” McHugh said. “Someone messaged me in one of those Facebook groups and was like ‘Hi, I’m a producer at Fox 5 [New York]. We’d love to have you on the show.’”
McHugh initially thought that the invitation was a scam and it wasn’t until she looked into the producer’s profiles on LinkedIn and Facebook that she realized the invitation was real.
“It was kind of surreal, but I’m a huge extrovert, so it wasn’t as stressful as it could have been and I had a fun experience doing it,” McHugh said. “The most stressful part was finishing the interview and we went from around 500 to 1,200 users in two hours, and the site was just absolutely blowing up.”