Why Joe Biden’s Free Covid Test Website Wasn’t a Dumpster Fire

They decided that the project should be sited 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 the Postal Service’s CIO, Pritha Mehra, learned about the project in December, she was given estimates that demand might peak at a million users an hour. Mehra, a 31-year veteran of the service, concluded that was a lowball prediction and multiplied the number by 20, striving for a fail-safe capability. “Think about it—free Covid tests,” she says. “Look at the numbers of people that are trying to buy them. And so we read 20 times the demand that had been projected, and I told my team that’s what we’re going to build to.” She had no problem recruiting that team. “This is a technologist’s dream, to be able to do this,” she says.

Mehra knew it would be a challenge to the service’s architecture, which involved a combination of its own data centers and outside cloud providers. Her team set up a system with triple redundancy, beefing up the architecture, separating the customer experience process from the order fulfillment, and caching data multiple times in the process. And doing endless load testing. “Believe me, there was a lot of work behind what seemed like a very simple site,” she says.

The whole project, from conception to a soft rollout on January 18 (a day earlier than announced), was completed in three weeks. The website itself was built by a relatively tiny team: three from USDS and around 15 in 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 its performance. Outside analytics indicate that more than 68 million people visited the site during its first week. Even more striking, at one point on the 18th, the site was handling 700,000 visitors at the same instant. By a large margin, this exceeded all traffic on other government sites combined. Best of all: The government now says that approximately 60 million people ordered tests.

I was one of those visitors, and I 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 got an email confirming my request.

Was the rollout perfect? Of course not. Some addresses didn’t register because they were listed as commercial buildings. The postal service tells me that it’s on the case and is handling those issues. Also, there have been issues with the response time at the phone number provided for those who don’t have web access. But don’t blame the geeks for that!

Of course, the registration is only step one in actually getting the tests delivered; 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 the arrival of their packages even before the promised window of seven to 12 days.

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