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Tech-savvy game vaccine queues using CoWIN APIs

The government may have officially opened up the COVID19 vaccination program to people in the 18-45 age group, but that doesn’t mean everyone can get a vaccine. Very few appointment slots have been opened for this age group; states such as Telangana are yet to even officially begin vaccinations for this group. This scarcity has led multiple developers to macgyver piecemeal solutions in the form of apps, websites and scripts to help the tech-savvy grab all slots minutes after they are opened.

All these third-party services leverage the recently opened up CoWIN Application Programme Interfaces (APIs). They allow users to search for open slots according to district and/or pin code. But where they really outdo the official government portal is in allowing users to register for alerts through email, Telegram and Twitter when slots open up in their desired area.

What is wrong with the official portal?

Ever since the government opened the vaccine registration for those between 18-45 years, many have had issues booking an appointment on the CoWIN portal. The website crashed for a few minutes and was later restored, but other bugs continued to exist. And even without these bugs, vaccination slots are hard to come by given the shortage of doses across the country. Most in the age group are still unable to find slots. Adding to these woes, the CoWIN portal has the following obstacles, which third-party developers are trying to address:

  1. Users have to go through the cumbersome process of logging in with an OTP each time they wish to find an open appointment slot.
  2. There is no feature that alerts a user when an appointment slot becomes available. So the only way to grab a slot is to constantly check the CoWIN portal for openings.
  3. Until Tuesday, there was no option to filter slots by age group.

Open APIs spur innovation, but at what cost?

Even if the government’s official portal addressed the concerns mentioned above, developers and coders would presumably manage to use the open APIs to one-up them. The APIs are doing what they normally should do — spur innovation. But under present circumstances, it seems to be widening the digital divide by enabling a handful of tech-savvy engineers to grab all the slots for themselves (and others who understand tech) at the expense of a majority of the population. That the Indian vaccination programme depends entirely on CoWIN has only aggravated the situation.

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The process of having to register and go through the CoWIN portal and the requirement to have some sort of identification has already raised questions on the exclusionary nature of the vaccination process. Rather than focusing on those who need it first such as essential workers, frontline workers, and journalists, the current strategy gives preference to those who can register first.

While some developers are using the open API to build apps for the public, many developers are using it for personal purposes. As with anything that involves programming, writing better code delivers better performance and results, which has turned this whole process of finding vaccination slots into a hackathon of sorts. In fact, bizarrely, the government has used this trend to flaunt the number of API calls made to the CoWIN platform.

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How are third-party apps able to find open slots?

The Empowered Group of Vaccine Administration led by RS Sharma, which falls under the aegis of the National Health Authority (NHA), selectively opened up parts of the CoWIN API to the public. This allows third-party developers to build apps and services that find available vaccination slots, but the API to book appointments remains protected and users will still have to book the appointment through the CoWIN portal or Aarogya Setu app.

The government has also opened up the API to download vaccination certificates. This selective opening up of the APIs has raised some questions because only a couple of weeks ago, the government refused permission to Step One, a non-profit organisation that built a Whatsapp bot to enable appointment registration. RS Sharma in a letter to Step One said that the APIs cannot be opened up without a comprehensive data capture policy in place because of the sensitivity of the data involved. Yet, eventually, parts of it were opened up without any policy in place.

List of third-party apps

New apps and services are cropping up every other day, here is a non-exhaustive list of such services:

  1. under45.in – Programmed by independent developer Berty Thomas, this site allows you to search for vaccination slots by state and district and also has a Telegram alert feature for select districts.
  2. getjab.in – Made by a team of developers (Azhar, Shyam, Anurag, and Akshay), this site gives you an alert by email if a vaccination slot opens up in your district.
  3. Labnol Google Script – Programmed by Amit Agarwal, this is an open-source Google Sheets script that anyone can leverage to monitor vaccine availability near them and receive email alerts.
  4. Signzy App –  Built by the team at Signzy, this app lets you search for slot availability by district or pin code and set email alerts based on pin code. It checks for availability every hour and sends out notifications four times a day.
  5. findslot.in – A portal created by Shubhendu Sharma and Jeroz Nishanth that lets you find slots based on pin code or district.
  6. Spaces app by Sarang Lakare – Live in 10 cities, this service works on @joinSpaces app which lets us create a space (like a group) per city and share information with all members.
  7. cowinalert.com – Developed by Kushagra Singh, Gurshabad Grover, and Varun Bansal, this website allows you to receive email alerts if a slot becomes available in the district of your choice.
  8. CoWIN Tracker by Ankur Paul – Allows users to search for slots by pin code
  9. CoWIN app by Bhavesh Bhatt – Allows users to search for slots by district and date range
  10. CoWin alerts – Developed by Sandip B, this platform provides email alerts based on pin code. But at the time of writing, the website was closed to new registrations due to high demand and API restrictions.

This list only includes services that are easy to use for the general public and not scripts and programs developers have coded for personal use (here, here, and here) or that require technical skills to implement (here).

Update (May 7, 7:02 am):  Added Spaces app to the list of apps and services.

Update (May 7, 11:33 am):  Added cowinalert.com to the list of apps and services.

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