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How tens of thousands of Japanese found their way to COVID-19 vaccination centers with the help of Navagis and Google Maps Platform

Editor’s Note: David Moore, Founder and CEO of Navagis, shares his story of teaming up with the Google Maps Platform team to help people across Japan get vaccinated amid COVID-19 pandemic.

The roots of Navagis go back to Hurricane Katrina, when I led an Army Corps of Engineers team that deployed 3D mapping technologies with Google Earth to respond to critical needs on the U.S. Gulf Coast. As a Google Cloud Premier Partner we work across various industries and organizational types to solve location intelligence challenges with our software solutions.

The experience taught me how powerful mapping insights can be in protecting lives when disaster strikes. The COVID-19 crisis brought a brand new human challenge to the world and like other countries, Japan found itself struggling to vaccinate its 125 million people, while trying to communicate about where (and under what circumstances) people could get their vaccines. 

Our end goal was to build a reliable, enriched, real-time dataset on Japan’s vaccination centers. Living in Japan, seeing some confusion and anxiety, I felt great urgency when I accepted the mission on behalf of our team.

From the very beginning we faced many challenges. Japan was experiencing unique difficulties in building an accurate real-time vaccine locator. First, we noticed the fragmentation of address information across thousands of local governments, from Hokkaido in the north to subtropical Okinawa in the south. Second, Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare had launched a website of nationwide vaccination sites, which they were constantly updating data sources. We noticed the location information was prone to inconsistencies due to its dispersion at the local level, and different conventions among prefectures on writing addresses. In order to ensure the integrity of a massive amount of decentralized data, mostly in Japanese, we required on-the-ground presence and experience.

In addition, we needed to go beyond simply mapping the location of vaccination centers. Each one needed to be a one-stop shop for all information regarding vaccination, including opening hours, safety precautions, and qualifications for getting the COVID-19 vaccine.  

Round-the-clock teamwork builds a helpful, informative mapping solution

People might think of mapping as all about AI, advanced satellites, and cloud computing power. Of course, these are essential. What is less known is the massive amount of human toil and dedication that goes into making vaccine location information available especially for an urgent health mission for a country as large and complex as Japan. 

Realizing our task was urgent, we worked with the Google Maps Platform team across time zones and over weekends to make this happen fast. In some cases a vaccine center was at a place where one would not normally expect to get a vaccine—like a pop-up location at a convention center. So we matched vaccine center addresses from the government website against Google Maps Platform’s Places data.

Architecture of the validation process

In under two weeks, we had identified, matched and marked tens of thousands of  locations as vaccination centers around the country. Moreover, the power of the Geolocation API and Places API enabled us to provide richer details for many of the centers.

One of the unique aspects of this project was being able to surface our work across multiple channels to accomplish a single goal. We were able to work with Google to ensure the vaccine centers appeared on the consumer user-facing Google Maps apps and website, with  information to help citizens learn where and how to get their vaccine. Our team was in hourly contact with requests such as “this center is mission-critical, can we get it mapped?” They were able to quickly get the site listed and visible on the map for end-users. This was a big human mobilization.

Powerful mapping APIs for pinpointed vaccine location information

We couldn’t have accomplished the massive task of validating 35,000 vaccination sites in such a short period of time without Google’s mapping APIs. The Maps Geocoding API and Places API enabled us to take location data from the government website, and quickly verify whether the location existed, or not, with  up-to-date places intelligence.

The Places API served a critical role in two ways: breadth of information (covering Japan’s entire territory), and depth of information (complex insight into each place, such as landmarks and phone numbers).

The ability to take the addresses provided by the government of vaccination sites, run them through the Places API, and assess the address quality helped enormously. Google Street View, meanwhile, provided a further level of validation, enabling us to visually identify the specific locations where errors remained, and manually identifying clinics and hospitals before identifying their precise latitude and longitude within cities in Japan.

Looking beyond COVID-19

Japan went from being a laggard in global vaccination rates before the summer of 2021 to one of the leaders, with nearly 80% of the population fully vaccinated. And, daily confirmed cases had been as low as 100 nationwide prior to Omicron emerging globally.

The prospect of putting to bed our adventure with the Japan Vaccine Locator couldn’t bring us more joy. 

Except perhaps, the prospect of helping people rediscover the joy of a return to normalcy—in  partnership with Google Maps Platform.

For more information on Google Maps Platform, visit our website.

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