Indian coders script ways to beat vaccination queues
Their bots however raise the ethical issue of inclusion
Not able to get a vaccination appointment? Or, managed to get one only to find the hospital has run out of vaccines? A host of Indian coders, who found themselves in a similar situation, have managed to get around it by cracking the code on the Co-Win website.
Take Bengaluru-based techie, Sarthak* , who created an algorithm that allowed him to automatically log into the Co-Win site and schedule a vaccination appointment based on realtime availability of a vaccine at a centre near him.
“With the algorithm I was able to get realtime notifications as and when a centre had fresh stocks,” he told BusinessLine on conditions of anonymity. Once he got vaccinated using the tool, he circulated it amongst his friends to help them book slots.
Real time notifications
Berty Thomas, a programmer in Chennai, also developed a similar tool and put it online for anyone to use. This tool gives realtime notification whenever the Co-Win website is updated with new vaccination slots for the 18-44-year set. His website which provides updates for all metros and a few Tier 1 cities, saw traffic of over 1 lakh users.
Several coders were able to beat the queue through their bots, as the Co-Win website has an open API or Application Programming Interface. As Srinivas Kodali, an independent researcher at Internet Movements in India, explains, “An API is essentially a software bridge. This bridge allows third-party actors such as Thomas and Sarthak to ‘talk’ with the Co-Win website to provide information around vaccination slots in a more convenient way.”
The Government may have taken the inspiration from the US in allowing open APIs, speculates Kodali. In the US, third-party platforms such as Uber allow users to book a vaccine appointment using their app via an API provided by the US government.
However, the tools developed by the coders have now raised the issue of inclusivity as the bots they have written to ping the system and book a slot are benefiting only those with access to online platforms. According to the 75th round of the National Sample Survey, only 25 per cent of people in rural India and 58 per cent in urban India have access to Internet.
In a tweet, policy researcher Rakshith S Ponnathpur wrote, “What we needed was a free and equitable vaccine policy, and what we got was techies booking off the entirety of the limited vaccine slots available.”
Sarthak was forced to take down his tool after social media backlash. He believes that making online registrations compulsory for vaccinations was a bad idea. “I preferred the earlier system where those who walked in could get vaccinated, even my parents would not be able to navigate the present system,” he explains.
(names changed on request)