With most Austinites still scrambling to find vaccines, Austin native James Kip used his background in tech to beat the system, get his elderly parents vaccinated and help thousands of Texans in the process.
The tech created a new avenue for overwhelmed Texans as the state began to receive record shipments of doses but millions were still left without appointments. The issue has given way to a new "full-time job," where people are left constantly refreshing vaccine providers' web pages—and those without the time or resources to do so are left without a vaccine.
That's where vaccine "scrapers" come into play. Like many residents across Texas, scrapers scan vaccination sites for appointments, but they do so on a much larger scale with technology. Automatic "bots" are programmed to look statewide, minute-by-minute for available vaccines and send alerts to members via phone or computer.
Kip created a network on communication platform Slack, the Texas Vaccine Updates, a month ago to give "refreshers" a break. A software engineer by day, Kip made the bot from home in about a week to get vaccines for his family. He soon realized there was a much greater need outside of his home.'
"I had no plans to make it public initially because it was just for me to get my parents vaccinated," Kip said. "I knew a lot of people before this were just sitting there all day refreshing the page. If they were older, usually what they were doing was calling each and every one of these pharmacies, so I knew there was a need for this alert system."
Kip posted on Reddit's Austin page that he had created the network for Texans in need of appointments in February. Now the channel has grown from around 1,000 users to nearly 10,000.
Covering everywhere from HEB, CVS and Randall's, the bots are everywhere, scanning locations statewide as quickly as possible. Once an appointment is found, the bot automatically alerts subscribers of appointment times and locations via Slack.
Kip said while more vaccines are shipping to the state, it's probably been even harder to get an appointment since his alerts launched. Slots could be taken up in as few as two seconds, Kip says.
"I think it's gotten harder, and I think the reason is now people kind of have their system set up and know which sites to check," Kip said. "I think the information spread faster than the vaccine and people found the places that had vaccines and just kept going."
While urban areas are constantly booked, Kip said that rural regions like West Texas are starting to have more openings. Austinites are often willing to travel several hours to get doses.
Despite Austin Public Health's best efforts, the department's limited doses a week have been unable to cut it for one of the nation's fastest-growing cities. To make matters worse, many have found APH's system to be riddled with backlog, glitches and miscommunications.
Kip said that he wishes state or local governments would have more effective centralized waitlists for those who qualify for the vaccine, and he feels like he and the community around Texas Vaccine Updates are doing the job for them.
"We have so many experts that it really feels like we are on a professional team," Kip said. "It feels like we're getting paid to do this because the state's not doing it. I kind of see it like we're working for the state and it's our responsibility to get these people vaccinated."
Since the "scrapers" were launched, Kip said that an entire community has been built to help Texans get vaccinated. According to Kip, a little under 200 developers have helped with the bots, some community organizers have joined and begun reaching out to older residents and volunteers stay on the site to help with any unanswered questions.
One volunteer, Sara Dubuque, has created another useful tool—a website designed to answer any and all Texas vaccine-related questions and give timely updates. Dubuque, who qualifies for the vaccine under group 1B, said that she decided to help out after a "magical" experience with the Slack bot.
"After sitting there for a couple of days watching things go by, I got an appointment and I thought, 'Well, that felt magical,'" Dubuque said. "I honestly couldn't believe it, and so I sort of immediately thought, 'Well this was great, how can I help?'"
Like the Slack channel, Dubuque's website has seen a cycle of volunteers who are grateful to get appointments and ready to help others get vaccinated too.
Lindsey Felix has seen both herself and her husband get vaccinated thanks to the bot. Felix said that it is inspiring to see the community fill in gaps where state and local governments are not.
"I think that it's just really heartening after a year where we've had to care about each other by staying away, being able to help and be a part of this feels really special and important," Felix said. "It is wonderful how hard we are all willing to work to keep each other safe."
While both groups are effective at giving people quick information and appointments, a big gap remains: Some of the most vulnerable populations in the community have a lack of internet access. Felix said that she has seen many seniors get turned away for being unable to make online appointments when she and her husband got vaccinated after qualifying.
"One thing we realized from the get-go is the system absolutely favors people who are able to sit in front of the computer all day," Felix said. "When (my husband) got his vaccine, it was really sad to see a pretty steady stream of seniors coming into the pharmacy and getting turned away because they're only handling people who have an appointment. That feels like such a huge missed opportunity."
Although the groups are still working on reaching the older population, Kip said that the most important thing they've spread is useful and reliable information.
"I think what people want more than a vaccine is just information," Kip said. "It's just so hard to get accurate information and to have clear and straight-to-the-point data, and that's what this community helps with."
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Actor, director and screenwriter Justin Theroux isn't the only famous member of his family. His canine companion Kuma made waves online this past weekend supporting Austin Pets Alive!—and Jennifer Aniston is a fan.
Theroux launched Kuma's own Instagram account on Saturday with a link to Austin Pets Alive!'s website in her bio. And the grey pitbull mix is already garnering the kind of attention worthy of her movie star dad: As of Monday night, she has over 55,000 followers.
Chief among them is Jennifer Aniston, who posted a photo of Theroux and his newly online dog on her Instagram story yesterday with fond words for the Austin shelter.
"Love what these two are doing to help people who help pups who help people," the 'Friends' star, and Theroux's ex-wife, wrote. "They helped save 60 pups at Austin Pets Alive! yesterday."
Theroux began volunteering at the shelter while filming 'The Leftovers' in Austin when he fell in love with the shelter's pitbulls, according to Dr. Ellen Jefferson, Austin Pets Alive! president and CEO.
"We are thrilled that he and Kuma are spreading the word about the work APA! is doing and the need to keep Austin no-kill," she said, referring to the shelter's commitment to save animals most at risk for euthenasia.
Theroux adopted his mut in 2018 after Kuma was rescued—dirty and injured—from the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey by A Chance to Bloom Dog Rescue, based in Conroe, Texas.
While Kuma is not from APA!, Theroux connected with the Conroe-based non-profit while visiting the Austin shelter, and he has remained "an enthusiastic supporter" ever since, Jefferson said.
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Six days a week, thousands of onlookers tune in to live streams to watch the pros rake it all in at high-stakes poker tournaments. The big-name poker players aren't in Las Vegas or even Oklahoma's finest casinos—instead, they're where Texas Hold 'Em gets its name.
Gambling may be illegal in Texas, but over a hundred poker houses are using a loophole to open up shop across the state, especially in Austin and Dallas.
The classic poker game is finally getting played for real cash around the Lone Star State thanks to an exception in Texas' gambling ban that allows poker games to be played in private residences. Instead of taking a cut from the pot like traditional gambling ventures, private poker houses don't make money from the results of a game; instead, they get their revenue from membership and hourly fees.
It's a business strategy that's gone (mostly) unchallenged by Texas politicians, especially as the industry begins to heat up.
Austin may now have around 20 poker houses around town, but it wasn't long ago that one stood alone like a small town saloon. The city's premiere poker house, Texas Card House, was founded in 2015 and has since grown to include a YouTube channel with over 30,000 subscribers, a wide range of gameplay and regular visits from big-name poker gurus like Brad Owen and Doug Pope.
David Lagana, a content creator who has worked in college sports and Hollywood, was brought into the scene in May as the house's live streams began to blow up. He said the live streaming battleground is only beginning.
"The space is ever-growing," Lagana said. "It's been interesting to try and find a lane that everybody can succeed. It's all about finding something that people want to watch on a nightly basis."
Can Player BLUFF Andrew Neeme and Brad Owen on LIVE Stream?
Watch now - https://t.co/4Wt4s5Z0V7@TheBradOwen @andrewneeme pic.twitter.com/Yg4R0c0sj2
— Texas Card House (@texascardhouse) August 25, 2021
Carolyn Hapgood, who has worked for Texas Card House for three years, has made a name for herself as a live stream producer, dealer and player herself with the company. She's seen Texas Card House grow from a two-room card house to the most well-known poker venue in Austin with another branch in Dallas.
"It was a teeny tiny little house with five tables, and that was the first legal card house in the state," Hapgood said. "And since then it's blown up."
Texas Card House dealer Carolyn Hapgood has been working with Austin's premier poker house since 2018. (Texas Poker House Austin/Facebook)
From $100 pots to buy-ins of $15,000 or more, Texas Card House has it all, especially as in-state players learn more about the game. Hapgood said there isn't really a typical poker player at the house—instead, the poker table forms an "interesting little ecosystem" that includes college students, a 93-year old Vietnam War veteran, online gamblers, old-school players and everyone in between. The diversity at the table has been enhanced even further by COVID as people clamor to return to in-person events.
But Texas Card House no longer holds a "royal flush" in Austin's poker culture. The Lodge, based in Round Rock, is now expanding to over 60 tables, the largest in Texas, while Palms Social Club, owned by Texas Card Houses' original owner Sam Von Kennel, brought service staff and a refined atmosphere to the Austin scene.
Hapgood said the base of poker players is very large and continues to grow, forming a community as players form friendships on and off the table.
"My favorite part of the poker community is how much fun we have," Hapgood said. "You sit at a table with eight of your friends, everyone's kind of just having a good time. There's a lot of players who will, you know, call or text each other after they're done playing, and they end up inviting each other barbecues, and going out to dinner with their families and stuff like that... those are my favorite people to hang out with."
Getting involved in the poker scene is as easy as tuning into a live stream, and Lagana hopes to see more outsiders like himself get inspired by poker in the future.
"It's kind of like life," Lagana said. "Life isn't just one hand to play... you're only in control of sort of what's in your hand (and) you can't play the card that you weren't dealt with. So it's really been a fascinating life lesson for me."
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From four-time Grammy-nominee turned big-screen actor, Black Pumas frontman Eric Burton will debut in the sci-fi short film "Devexity," which is written, directed by and stars Austinites.
The film, brought to life by Austin-based filmmaker Luke Lidell, will premiere on Oct. 7 at the Native Hostel while Burton is in town for Austin City Limits Fest. Then, "Devexity" will head off to film festival screenings, according to a report by The Austin Chronicle.
Following Burton as the film's protagonist, named Jean, "Devexity" takes place across several different settings and surfaces an existential response from the watcher. Burton stars alongside fellow Austinites Ali Pentecost, Dominique Pitts and New Yorker Madison Murrah in the partially black-and-white film.
The film was shot over the course of four days in October 2020, which Lidell said was a challenge of "focus" and "trust" to create. With a variety of scenes and intertwining narratives, the film dives into the topic of virtual reality.
A musician in addition to a filmmaker, Lidell previously directed the film "Telekinetic" in 2018. The script for "Devexity" was written by Lidell with Burton in mind for the lead after meeting him during a music video project in 2017—Lidell said Burton helped him shape the characters along the way.
Now that the door has been opened for work between Burton and Lidell, you're likely to see the pair collaborate again—a Black Pumas documentary is being rumored.
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