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Vaccine alert services that use CoWIN API may see 30 minute delay

The government on Wednesday updated its policy around CoWIN public APIs saying that data may now be up to 30 minutes old. This directly impacts the usefulness of numerous third-party apps and services that have sprung up in the last week to help people find vaccination slots. APIs, or Application Programming Interfaces, help third parties connect to a service; in the case of CoWIN, APIs have been used to automatically fetch data on newly opened vaccine slots. This may soon not happen as easily as it has been so far:

“The [CoWIN site’s vaccine] appointment availability data is cached and may be up to 30 minutes old. Further, these APIs are subject to a rate limit of 100 API calls per 5 minutes per IP.” – API Setu website.

MediaNama reported earlier on Wednesday on how the tech-savvy are gaining upper hand in finding vaccination slots using these public APIs. While the government has officially opened up the COVID19 vaccination program to people in the 18-45 age group, not many are able to get a vaccine because very few appointment slots have been opened for this age group. This scarcity has led developers to use the CoWIN public APIs to build solutions in the form of apps, websites, and scripts to help the tech-savvy grab all slots minutes after they are opened.

Are third-party apps useful anymore?

Third-party apps allow users to search for open slots according to district and/or pin code and to register for alerts through email, Telegram and Twitter when slots open up in their desired area. Users still have to use the official CoWIN portal to book the appointment, but the convenience of knowing immediately when a slot opens up was a significant advantage in many places. Users didn’t have to repeatedly log into the portal and keep refreshing to check availability on the official portal. Even earlier, the data provided by these apps and channels were not as up-to-date as the official CoWIN portal because there was a few seconds of lag in the data. But a 30-minute delay defeats the purpose of these apps as users can no longer grab a slot as soon one opens, given that these slots go away within minutes, if not seconds.

Berty Thomas, the developer behind the popular site under45.in, told MediaNama that he has removed the search facility owing to these changes but has kept Telegram alert services because they might still be of value to the users. And as far as the rate limits go (100 API calls per 5 minutes per IP), they do not mean anything, he added. “The very fact that companies have now come up with the search facility for vaccine slots show that the CoWIN API rate limits can be overcome. Just that it comes with an additional cost to it which non-entities cannot afford,” he said.

Kushagra Singh, one of the developers behind cowinalert.com, told MediaNama that his website’s alert feature might be still useful in places where the rush is less. “At this point, we’re seeing a lot of rush, especially around Bangalore districts. But in Delhi, for instance, there are districts adding 800+ slots, and people are able to book it after receiving alerts,” he said. Another important insight he shared was that “it is impossible to guess how old the data is. So it could be possible that when we send out an alert, the data fetched was not stale at all.” Whatever be the case, Singh believes that this is better than refreshing the official CoWIN website every 5 minutes to find slots and it “should become more reliable in the coming few days as the rush goes down.”

The third-party apps were better than the official CoWIN portal in many ways, but the innovation came at a cost: it seemed to widen the digital divide by enabling a handful of tech-savvy users to grab all the slots for themselves at the expense of a majority of the population. Now with a delay in data, this is less of a concern. However, the bigger concern of giving preference to those who can register first rather than those who might need it more, such as essential workers and frontline workers still remains, as does the problem of the official site remaining cumbersome to use.

To know more about how these APIs work and see a list of apps/services using them, read our earlier story.

Update (6 May, 2:18 pm): Added comments from Berty Thomas, the developer behind under45.in.

Update (7 May, 11:39 am): Added comments from Kushagra Singh, the developer behind cowinalert.com.

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