If you are one of the millions of people who have registered on the CoWIN website for COVID-19 vaccination but are yet to receive an appointment, it might be a good idea to turn to technology for help.
Several individuals and groups are using tools such as application programming interface (API) and scripts (commands executed by software programs) to get real-time information about vaccination slots becoming available on the CoWIN portal and sending this information to their subscribers.
Websites such as Under45.in and Getjab.in provide instant alerts when vaccines become available. Under45.in, started by Chennai-based programmer Berty Thomas, has more than 50 Telegram channels for districts and cities in the country. More than one lakh people have subscribed to them. The Bengaluru channel alone has more than 10,000 subscribers. As soon as vaccine appointments are uploaded on the CoWIN portal, subscribers get a message detailing the centre name, PIN code, vaccine name and the number of slots available. People who have registered on the CoWIN portal can use this information to schedule their appointment.
Although the platforms have been created with the intention of helping people get slots easily, they have come under criticism for being elitist, exclusionary in nature and preventing the vaccination drive from being equitable. Health activists, researchers and others argue that the platforms give an unfair edge to people who have access to technology. With vaccine supply being limited and the government yet to allow walk-in vaccination for the under-45 age group, it doesn’t give even a fighting chance to people who are not tech-savvy.
The state of Bangalore vaccination as of 5:34 pm: 3-4 Telegram groups with 5-10k+ members each vying for 98 shots at Apollo Hospital Sheshadripuram (or Apollo Cradle or whatever). A total of about 400-500 shots a day.
— Venkat Ananth (@venkatananth) May 4, 2021
“India is low on digital literacy, the design and process of the CoWIN portal itself is exclusionary. On top of that now you have inner groups which are informed about slots being available and they immediately go and book it, so in an already exclusive set up it becomes more exclusive. I wouldn’t blame the techies but with many more emulating it, the situation becomes worse. It’s not ethical on their part to use their skills this way, they need to ponder over it,” says policy researcher Rakshith Ponnathpur.
Programmers who have designed these services admit that it is difficult to answer questions on how ethical these platforms are but argue that affordability and availability of the vaccines is a bigger concern than information asymmetry for an equitable vaccination drive. “I had a choice. One is to book a slot for myself and keep quiet. But I felt that it was important for others as well. There are many people who do not have the technical knowhow to use these APIs, there will always be people who do the booking for themselves and stay quiet. I am trying to create a platform where more people can probably use the API compared to few tech-savvy individuals,” says Thomas.
While most platforms allow only instant alerts about vaccination slots being made available, there is suspicion about scripts being used to even schedule appointments automatically without any human intervention. “In some cities we are seeing that 100 slots made available at a particular centre get booked within 20-30 seconds. We suspect scripts are being used for this,” says Thomas.
This reporter got an alert on a Telegram channel about 98 slots being available in Bengaluru’s Manipal Clinic for May 5. The message came at 5.02pm, and within a minute all slots were booked, giving credence to the suspicion. “Only few individuals have access to such scripts and they use their discretion to decide who they will help. It is almost similar to hoarding vaccines,” says Rakshith.
A few programmers have boasted about having developed scripts that log them in automatically and schedule appointments. Earlier, developers used similar scripts and bots for automation of Tatkal railway ticket booking. Those developers were later arrested.
.@_jineshmehta_ at 1 PM: Can we somehow automate logging into CoWIN?
10 hours later, I’m running a script that logs me in automatically and tries to reschedule my appointment
— Umang (@umanghome) May 1, 2021
Several celebrities and other individuals too have lashed out against these scripts being used to corner vaccine slots.
— Raghu Dixit (@Raghu_Dixit) May 4, 2021
With vaccine supply unlikely to improve significantly in the coming week, the government will have to decide how they will regulate this space.