Automated vaccine registration triggers debate over fair distribution

Many opine people with access to technology may have an edge over those without technical know-how.

Smooth and speedy distribution of vaccines is a major task for the Centre and states

Not just the alarming rise in COVID cases,  the Centre is also worried about a smooth and fair vaccination drive in the next few months. To make it a hassle-free affair, the government has thrown open the Application Programming Interface (API) – the idea is the dissemination of all possible data on the vaccination drive – of the CoWIN platform for third-party applications. But the move has now triggered a debate if that could be misused by programmers to automate the whole process, from registration to notification and the vaccination.

Some experts also point at the lack of fair play, whether people with access to advanced technology will have an edge over people without technical know-how.

In a report published in India Today, some experts claim that while the public API data of CoWIN alone can’t be used to automate the registration process, it could be used with Robotic Process Automation (RPA) to automate the self-registration process.

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But there is a glitch there as well. The process requires too technically sophisticated which will make the mass vaccination drive a tough task.

So what’s API and what does it do?   

In simple terms, API is an interface that defines interactions between multiple software applications or mixed hardware-software intermediaries. It defines the kinds of calls or requests that can be made, how to make them, the data formats that should be used, the conventions to follow, etc. In a way, API makes respective platforms more accessible and user-friendly. In the case CoWIN, API will notify you the moment vaccines are available in your nearest location – something urgently needed in these times of chaos.

As is wont, developers have come up with multiple solutions, with platforms like Under45 sending telegram alerts on vaccination slots, availability, and supply.

Also read: Not fast fingers, software programs gaming CoWIN can get you the jab

Likewise, Amit Agarwal, founder of digital solution platform Labnol has come up with email alerts about vaccination and more.

Explaining the mechanism, Agarwal told India Today, “What we have done is, using these public APIs, we have built a spreadsheet where anybody could put in their pin code and email address. It keeps connecting to this API every one or two hours and it keeps checking the availability of vaccines. In case the vaccines are available, the spreadsheet will send an email alert to users.

But experts say the public API of the CoWIN App alone is not enough to fully automate the registration process because the government has not released the entire API.

Agarwal says, in the same article, the API provided can only show the availability of vaccines across pin codes or districts and hence developers cannot automate the entire registration process.

Also read: All about CoWIN app — the key to India’s COVID vaccination drive

Meanwhile, CoWIN chief Dr RS Sharma told India Today, “It is possible for “a script to send the same manual commands that a person would do, but that doesn’t mean that the person would get a seat where the seat is not available for others or without OTP authentication.”

Another concern among many experts is that need to register on a platform like CoWIN itself leads to the omission of a major section of society, including less tech-savvy people, leave alone the poor.

Centre tweaks CoWIN API guidelines

However, on Friday (May 7), the Centre has issued fresh CoWIN API guidelines, which many believe, will affect third-party tools which are helping people find an available slot for vaccination.

How does it affect? “This is because the guidelines now state that appointment availability data shown via third-party tools will be cached and not real-time, which could result in at least 30-minute delay,”  according to multiple reports.

Experts also say if the notification is delayed by 30 minutes, the number of slots will vanish by the time users get vaccine updates about slots.

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