With the second wave of COVID-19 wreaking havoc across the country, it is clear that the only sustainable way to mitigate the ongoing crisis as well as avoid further waves in future, is to get as many people vaccinated as possible. But the registration for the current phase of the vaccination for the 18-44 age group is only online, in a system that only widens the digital divide and leaves non-tech savvy citizens in the dark. To that end, coders are now developing bots using the Co-WIN platform. While some have created systems to alert people to available slots through email and messaging applications like Telegram, others have sought to create unethical scripts that automatically book available slots.
The government’s system, which gives an undue advantage to a user having significant technological know-how, ample time to stare at computer screens and a quick finger to input data, has left behind a large swath of the country that is unable to compete. The coders want to perhaps get vaccines and allow others to get the vaccine early, simply taking advantage of the loophole available. Hundreds who are desperate to get a vaccine, are using this advantage. A fairer, equitable system would have allowed an even playing field.
Not only are COVID-19 vaccines in short supply in India, but appointment slots for those between the ages of 18-44 are scarce.They also open at random timings in most states, making it difficult for people to know when a slot will become available.
If the combination of priced vaccines and scarce supply was not enough of a burden, the process of registering online on the Co-WIN app with the help of an OTP for booking a vaccine appointment has made it all the more difficult for the common people, in a country where digital literacy is very limited. A 2020 National Health Family Survey stated that 60% women in 12 states and Union Territories have never used the internet.
This process design has inarguably placed the urban, smartphone owning, tech-savvy Indian at an advantage over the rest of the country’s population. With a very limited supply of vaccines, what this essentially means is that the chances for those unfamiliar with technology to be able to compete with their tech-savvy counterparts is close to zero.
As if this was not enough, many software engineers are making use of public APIs that are available to build tools that send instant alerts to social media groups that they have created, to help people book slots as soon as they are made available. This is being done through data made publicly available by the developers of Co-WIN via a public API (https://apisetu.gov.in/public/api/cowin).
An API is generally how most computers and servers communicate with each other over the internet. Engineers are using this publicly available API and Telegram, a messaging app with its own publicly available API (https://core.telegram.org/bots/api) to get alerts when any vaccine slot opens up. This is preventing the already scarce vaccines from being available to everyone.
Developers have also come up with a small browser extension that queries the Co-WIN API and alerts the user when a slot opens up. While some of these applications have been made available to the public to get alerted when a vaccine slot opens up, most are still running in private circles and telegram channels.
For example, 35-year-old Berty Thomas automated a search to book a slot for the vaccine drive and then created the website — under45.in — which checks for slots and sends alerts to around 100,000 people in 60 Telegram groups in various cities. Shyam Sunder meanwhile created — getjab.in — to notify people by email when slots are available. Around 80,000 people from 400 districts registered with his site, Reuters reported.
These APIs only allow building of tools that alert people whenever slots are made available, and a slot is not guraranteed. However, some have also managed to build automated scripts that have gone ahead and booked a slot for them as soon as it was made available.
Software scripts are easy to share and replicate, and within days of the vaccine drive opening up, many such groups have cropped up, each group running into thousands of subscribers, most of them coming from these very urban, tech-savvy backgrounds who know that such automation is possible and such groups exist. Because there is so little supply, there is a huge competition even within this exclusive group to book the slots, almost similar to a fastest finger contest that we have seen in television reality shows.
If the average non-tech savvy Indian found it difficult with the Co-WIN way of registering for the vaccine and booking a slot, this has rendered them with absolutely no chance to book a slot. An already inequitable process has been made even more inequitable, skewing the advantage further towards the already privileged. When the bar of entry is to be a skilled software engineer, the vaccine is not truly available for everyone and is handing the software developers, their friends and families an advantage in getting a slot.
It also means that they can take up slots for vaccination in rural areas because there is nothing stopping them from booking vaccination slots in rural areas and then traveling there for it.
Views are of the authors’ own.