On May 1, 2021, when COVID-19 vaccination opened in India for people aged 18 years and above, Vijay (name changed) was frustrated. He was running from 6 am till 2.30 pm across Bengaluru, covering three hospitals, one more than an hour’s drive, that were listed for vaccinating people under 45.
“Either the booked slots were cancelled due to shortage of vaccines or the hospital decided not to vaccinate people at the last minute due to the rising cases there,” Vijay said on condition of anonymity.
So he went back home, angry and desperate.
This story resonates with hundreds of others across the country. Only, the difference between Vijay and others is that he is a techie and put his frustration and coding skills to good use by writing scripts to book a vaccine slot and managed to get his first dose of vaccine a few days back.
Coding to schedule slots
Unlike the multiple Telegram groups and bots that alert users whenever slots open up, Vijay wrote three scripts that not only searches for slots using the Application Program Interfaces (APIs) of CoWin, but also for scheduling the slot.
These scripts check for the vaccine slot availability multiple times a minute. Once the slots are available, the scripts login to the CoWin website. The scripts are automated to input the mobile number, and check and validate the OTP generated and, schedule a slot.
To be sure, using APIs to send alerts is allowed by the government. “Co-WIN Public APIs can be used to find appointment availability and to download vaccination certificates. These APIs are available for use by all third party applications,” apisetu.gov.in, a government portal on the usage of CoWin APIs, says.
However, this does not state if scheduling is actually allowed, and, hence, it is not clear if it is ethical to use scripting to book a slot as well. According to techies Moneycontrol spoke to, this falls in a grey zone, and it is unethical and unfair to use scripts to book a slot.
What the CoWin chief says
Moneycontrol reached out to CoWin chief RS Sharma for a comment on how the government plans to address the issue.
Sharma categorically denied that people are running any scripts. He said there are enough checks and systems in place to ensure people are not able to run scripts.
“(People) can't run scripts. The way the whole thing operates is that first you need to get an OTP, which cannot be done by scripts,” he added. However as seen from the example of Vijay, it is possible by using complex scripts.
Arvind Gupta, head, Digital India Foundation, a think tank, said, "The CoWin team has opened the availability information on API basis but not for booking slots. Lots of checks and balances are in place where scripts cannot work. Any person or teams claiming scripts to BOOK slots is making a fraudulent claim."
However, experts disagree and say that it is not entirely impossible.
T Prasad, Chief Information Security Officer, Instasafe, a cybersecurity platform, explained that it is possible to use scripts to book a slot, though it might take time to create them. This includes installing an application on the phone to read your SMS and linking it to the computer, a refined version of what Vijay had done.
The argument of ethical and unethical aside, the very act goes to show how much people are willing to go, if this means they can get the jab.
As of May 4, India registered close to 3.8 lakh new cases and 3,780 deaths. Several states are reeling under the shortage of oxygen and ICU beds.
India is also facing a huge shortage of vaccines, with many states delaying vaccination for the 18-44 category.
Though some like Karnataka have commenced it in a small way, slots and vaccine availability are limited and have led to many in India’s tech capital to resort to what they know best - create tech solutions.
Look at the Under45 Telegram groups for several Indian cities created by Berty Thomas, a business analyst in Chennai. The group for Bengaluru has 20,000 subscribers already and is growing everyday. It is the highest for a single group. In comparison, Pune has over 16,000 and Mumbai has 7,000.
Thomas, who has created similar groups for about 70 cities in India, including smaller cities like Nashik, said that while the demand for vaccine slots is high across the country for the 18-44 category, it is particularly worse in Bengaluru, where the slots are few, compared to other parts of India.
Gupta (name changed), a Bengaluru-based techie, agrees. “It has been frustrating because whenever a slot opens up, it gets filled in a matter of seconds,” he adds.
Gupta added that while there are hundreds of slots available for the over 45 groups, the 18-44 group finds it difficult.
Like Thomas, Gupta too has built an application out of exasperation. He built Excel macros that gives people the visibility of slots for the next seven days in their respective areas. Gupta, so far, has not been lucky enough to book a slot, though.
Both Thomas and Gupta's applications, developed using the APIs that send instant alerts, come with their own disadvantages.
Alerts not enough
Before building the script to book a slot, Vijay first wrote scripts to alert him when the vaccine slot opened up.
However, between the alert and the actual booking, he missed his cue by a few seconds. “When there are thousands of people trying to book a slot that is limited, you need to be logged in, and refresh the page and register at the right time. This is impossible as there will always be people who are faster than you are, and unless you are glued to your phone all the time, you don’t have a chance,” explains Vijay.
Now, there is a 30-minute delay in relaying information about the vaccine slots through the APIs. “The appointment availability data is cached and may be up to 30 minutes old,” reads the information from apisetu.gov.in.
Techies noted that when they are trying to make it easier to book slots through alerts, the 30-minute delay makes the whole process of allowing third parties to use APIs pointless.
Privilege and digital divide
This also makes the digital divide more apparent, makes the vaccination process exclusionary and privileges more pronounced. There are already users complaining that the portal is being gamed by a few, putting many at a distinct disadvantage.
Techies like Vijay are aware. “In some ways, one is more privileged than the other,” he says.
These scripts require some knowledge of coding and also laptops and good access to the internet, which the majority of India does not possess.
Though the vaccine shortage is expected to come down in the coming months, some of them have gone as far as suggesting an open lottery, similar to what the US has for H-1B candidates, to give everyone an equal opportunity, instead of relying on tech tricks.