Users will now also have to enter a Captcha on Co-Win, India's Covid-19 vaccine scheduling platform, to book their vaccination slot, a move aimed at restricting some coders who were cornering slots by running scripts to automate the booking process. While this will curb people from trying to game the platform using scripts, it will also make the process of booking a slot more cumbersome as entering a captcha usually hampers user experience.
This development comes a day after Moneycontrol reported that techies are using their coding skills to get a jab, even as India grapples with a shortage of vaccines. Unlike the multiple Telegram groups and bots that alert users whenever slots open up, some also wrote scripts that not only searches for slots using the Application Program Interfaces (APIs) of CoWin, but also automates the scripts to schedule a 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. Users will now have to enter Captcha, a feature that is used to differentiate bots and humans, to book their COVID-19 vaccination slot.
On May 6, CoWin chief RS Sharma challenged techies to show that scripts can be used to not just check the availability, which is allowed using CoWin’s application programme interface (API), but also book them. Sharma categorically denied that such tricks are possible as it requires One Time Password (OTP) to be entered, which he said, cannot be done by scripts. Many developers shared examples of how it could be done, and even suggested adding a Captcha, which has now been implemented. Captcha uses alphanumeric characters to distinguish humans from bots and requires human intervention. “Most people will not be able to automate this process,” said Anand, a techie.
“Breaking captcha requires the knowledge of Optical Character Recognition that can read them, which cannot be done by the majority of the people who are now using scripts to book vaccination slots” explained Anand. Vijay*, a techie from Bengaluru who used scripting to book a vaccination slot, agrees. “It is still possible to break but very few can do it,” he said.
While this makes the process equitable for everyone who is tech-savvy, it comes with its own downsides. For one, captcha makes it difficult for users, who are not tech-savvy or comfortable with English to use the application. Developers Moneycontrol spoke to said it only solves a part of the problem as reading the Captcha can also be automated. “As it is using CoWin to book slots in itself is an issue and makes it exclusionary. Introducing Captcha will not make it any easier,” says Anand. Vijay added that people who cannot read English will be left out unless it is implemented in multiple languages.
4 digit code
The Government on May 7th, 2021 also added a new security feature to the CoWin digital platform, where users will get a "4 digit security code" to minimise errors for online bookings/appointments, which will come into effect on 8th May, 2021. This is to address the concerns of people who said they received an SMS that they had been administered a vaccine dose even when they did not go for vaccination on the scheduled date. This was due to a wrong data entry by the vaccinator. To minimise this, the vaccinator will now ask for the 4-digit code from the beneficiary before administering the vaccine.
On May 6, the government put a limit on Application Programme Interface (API) calls that can be made every 5 minutes per server. Earlier this was unlimited. Now this has been reduced to just 100 times per 5 minutes. Additionally, the appointment availability data is cached and up to 30 minute old. What this means is that when an alert is sent, it might not be real-time data and it could be u to 30 minutes old. The limit on the number of calls would impact the frequency of Telegram alert groups run by techies on vaccination slots.
Impact on alert groups
Berty Thomas, a business analyst in Chennai who has created Telegram groups for over 70 cities in India, said in a Telegram group alert, “There have been some changes in the CoWin API limits overnight and hence it is getting increasingly difficult to maintain this level of alert.” Thomas also had to close the search application that allows users to search vaccine slots across the country. “Because of this change, we are no longer able to have a search on the website using those APIs as the traffic has grown exponentially,” she added. Over a call, Thomas explained that the search functionality they provided was seeing huge traffic as it enabled the user to search district-wise. With the current restrictions in place, that may not be possible and was hence closing it down. However, the channel alerts through Telegram would continue.
Telegram groups give programmers control over the number of API calls they can make. However, with a limit imposed, the number of alerts is limited and might not help people in cities like Bengaluru, which requires faster updates. This has indeed been a dampener. Techies noted that such limits will hamper the goodwill and effort many are putting in.
Finding a way around
But some, like Thomas, are still looking at the situation as 'glass half full' and finding a way around. “There are many people working on sending alerts. But when there are restrictions, it limits what a single person can do. So I started reaching out to more programmers for collaboration. This is no competition. All of us are working doing this to help people and so why not work together,” Thomas told Moneycontrol.
He also added that he is collaborating with five other programmers across cities in India to run the alerts. For instance, he is working with @BloreVaccine to send alerts to the Bengaluru Telegram vaccine alert group, in addition to Twitter alerts. The owner of the @BloreVaccine is currently anonymous. Similarly, he is working with four other people from different cities like Chennai and Pune. “With more people, I will be able to focus my efforts to create alerts in rural areas, where I have been getting more requests from,” he said. He is also working with other voluntary groups from non-tech background, who are willing to work on content and also fact-check if the centers listed are indeed vaccinating the 18-44 category.