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Thursday, February 25, 2021

Complexity is the Enemy of Speed

The title of this post came from an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal yesterday on vaccine distribution. Many attempts to get the vaccines to the right groups first have slowed down distribution and sometime even caused vaccines to go to waste. Rules to help spread vaccines across minority groups often backfire. Often when some rules lead to inequity, we try to fix it with more rules when we need less much less. Attempts to distribute vaccines to multiple medical and pharmacy sites have made it difficult to get appointments even if you are eligible.

Randomness is the simplest way to fairness. The movie Contagion got it right, just choose birthdays by picking balls from a bin to distribute the vaccine. Then people can just show up at a few chosen sites with proof of birthday. No need to sign up.

You could argue to add back conditions like age, medical conditions, jobs but that just leads you down the same problematic path. The fastest way to get past this pandemic is to get vaccines into arms. Trust the randomness.


  1. "Then people can just show up at a few chosen sites with proof of birthday. No need to sign up."

    You can't be this naïve can you?

  2. "Trust the randomness." +1 +2 +3

  3. The system should be "today we are serving people born on or after August 15, 1963" and that cutoff date should be moved ahead one day at a time. That would be simple and would prioritize those at highest risk. I'm not sure why randomizing it would be useful at all.

  4. Randomization is too complex. I propose alphabetical order by first name.

  5. +1 for "proof of birthday". Indeed randomization has given us power, that said, the way in which we often generate random numbers remains ironically deterministic with a paradox of being flawed.

  6. Age is not more complex than you suggest, just the order is not by (random) DAY of birthday but by (non-random) year of birthday. This day it is turn for people which was born 1950, or this week it is turn for people with birthday between 1950 and 1955, and so on.