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CoWIN bookings now possible on government, Jio-run WhatsApp chatbot; here’s how to book a slot

Taking around 14 steps from start to finish, the slot booking process is longer than doing it online and might not be suited for booking in areas that are still facing a scarcity of vaccines. 

Vaccine appointments in India can now be booked through WhatsApp, Minister for Health and Family Welfare Mansukh Mandaviya announced on Twitter. NDTV first reported the announcement. The MyGovIndia Corona Helpdesk was developed in a public-private partnership with JioHaptik, a Reliance-acquired subsidiary that was previously called Haptik. The company works on AI chatbots among other things. Over 3 million people have used the MyGovIndia chatbot to download their vaccination certificates, WhatsApp CEO Will Cathcart said on Twitter (Abhishek Singh, CEO of the state-run MyGov, thanked Cathcart for WhatsApp’s support in deploying the chatbot).

The government is curiously among the last to take advantage of the CoWIN API — the code that lets third parties use its platform to provide linked services — by deploying it where it is likely to reach the widest audience — WhatsApp. Vi and Paytm were among the first to leverage the API to allow vaccine booking — even calorie tracking app HealthifyMe got in on the action. As one Twitter user said in a pithy missive, “Big tech arrives casually after the telegram bots have been exhausted,” referring to the volunteer-run chatbots that have for months been alerting users on newly available slots.

Long flow 

MediaNama tried the MyGovIndia Corona Helpdesk to book a vaccine slot, and it turned out to be a longer process than booking online. Here are the typical steps from start to finish:

  1. Click here to text the chatbot.
  2. Say “Hi”.
  3. Select “Vaccination – Book Appointment, Download Certificate, Centre & FAQ” by typing “2”.
  4. Select “Vaccination Appointment – Book, Reschedule & Cancel” by typing “1”.
  5. Type in an OTP that is sent by SMS. (Even though this chatbot only works with the CoWIN account registered under the WhatsApp number you’re texting from, an SMS-based OTP is still required.)
  6. Select the family member by typing their corresponding digit. (Their details need to be registered on the platform already.)
  7. Tap “Search by pincode”. (searching by district is not possible, in spite of many vaccine centres being concentrated in certain places, even in urban areas.)
  8. Tap “Covishield,” “Covaxin,” or “Sputnik”. (More options may have been added when you’re reading this.) Type “Any” if you have no preference one way or the other.
  9. Select whether you want a “Paid,” “Free,” or “Any” type of vaccination.
  10. Enter a pincode.
  11. Type a digit corresponding to a vaccination centre listed.
  12. Select a day by typing the corresponding digit.
  13. Select a time slot by typing the corresponding digit.
  14. (Optional) Download the appointment slip by tapping “Get Appointment Slip”.

The back-and-forth nature of a chatbot necessarily means that there will be a bit more friction, but the added filters and OTP requirements slow the process down considerably. So, if you live in an area with scarce vaccine appointments still, then consider using the website instead.

CoWIN timeline

CoWIN started as a limited service, and started adding features as more and more people started facing trouble and had wider needs from the service.

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  • CoWIN is announced with a public call for suggestions to improve it on December 23 2021 after being in closed beta within the government for months.
  • From March 1, the general public starts getting vaccinated, and the CoWIN platform is voluntary, as only senior citizens needed to get vaccinated and the second wave had not started yet, leaving demand for the vaccine sagging.
  • On April 28, registrations open for people over the age of 18 to put their details on the CoWIN platform; the site crashes from the heavy traffic, even though slots are not yet available to book. From May 1, people above the age of 18 can book the slots, but those under 45 need a CoWIN appointment mandatorily, a move the government explains is to prevent crowding.
    • It is at this time that the CoWIN API is selectively opened to a few operators without any accompanying data use policy. On May 28, details of the API are finally made public.
  • Around June, the government starts piloting a system that would encourage more people to put their Aadhaar number and getting a Uniform Health ID generated therefrom. Over 110 million such IDs are generated, and a field for this is added on the vaccination certificate. These IDs are generated in Union Territories, where the linking was first tested.
    • The government started allowing people to fix errors in their certificates automatically this month. This included changing their ID to a passport number, to enable people to travel internationally in countries where a vaccine certificate is accepted.
  • On June 29, the government offers to make a free version of CoWIN that other countries can use. While many countries participated in the virtual event announcing the move, it was unclear who leveraged the platform significantly.
  • In July, the CoWIN API is opened for vaccine bookings too, with Vi, Paytm and HealthifyMe among those who leverage the functionality.
  • In August, the government says in a report that six firms have been shortlisted to support CoWIN’s international expansion, a list that included KPMG, NSDL, Deloitte, PwC and TCS.

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I cover the digital content ecosystem and telecom for MediaNama.

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