“The Python bots notify the software engineers whenever fresh stock of vaccines are made available ”
Swaroop Gudipudi, a software engineer, tried to book vaccine slots on the CoWIN app. To his frustration, he failed repeatedly. He figured out that the biggest problem with vaccine finder apps was the subscription of millions of people which far surpasses the number of slots that become available. The other issue he discovered when exploring Aarogya Setu’s API was the application has slots for doses 1 and 2 of the vaccine. In case, a person is dose 1 individual trying to book a slot but slots are open for dose 2, then slots don’t get booked and no such message is displayed.
Swaroop put his skills to use and came up with his own “Atamnirbhar” solution, which fetched him slots within 30 minutes. He used the Aarogya Setu API to develop a program that runs 24 hrs to alert when slots become available. Scheduling an appointment is very easy with Airflow. The programme is made in docker script and all a user has to do is to run docker-compose commands.
Bragadeesh from BITS Pilani is another software engineer who responded in a similar way. When he failed to secure a slot for his wife, the IIT-Madras alumnus, turned to his computer for assistance. He developed a Python script to allow users to get real-time alerts for vaccination slots for the 18 to 45 age group.
In conversation with Analytics India Magazine, Bragadeesh explained how he used Python to fetch information from the CoWIN website. The Chennai resident used the Government’s publicly available API (from API Setu) to write the Python script. The script constructs a URL path and hits the API to receive information in a JSON file.
“I then check for two criteria mentioned in every centre in the JSON file. First, if the age group is not equal to 45 years; and second, if the ‘Available Vaccine Doses’ is greater than zero,” he explained. “The script runs for a certain period through a While Loop where the internal parameters can be set. If the time set is 60 seconds, the script will keep checking the API or the website every one minute.”
There are others like Bhavesh Bhatt, who are not just stopping at slot booking. “I’m still exploring the APIs that exist on the site. Based on my initial read, I think we can add features in the script which will help in booking a slot directly using the API. The other feature that can be added is to download the vaccine certificate directly from the API after the vaccination is done,” said Bhatt when we asked him about the features that he is planning to add.
While their street smarts of these techies earned them accolades, it also left few scoffing at the unfair advantage.
Now the challenge in front of India is not only to secure vaccines for the world’s second-most populous country but also assuring the fair and impartial distribution of vaccine shots. The online registration for vaccine distribution is doing the precise opposite of what it is supposed to accomplish. The desperation of not getting an appointment and short supply has pushed some tech-savvy Indian software engineers to find a solution—APIs and have started a hackathon of securing vaccines.
APIs: Boon or bane?
The CoWIN platform is backed by open data like other typical e-governance platforms in India inspired by the Western policy of open APIs. The Indian Government had adopted open APIs to enable quick and transparent integration amongst e-governance platforms of various government agencies. It promoted the participation of all stakeholders including citizens and provided access to data and services.
APIs for all e-governance platforms and systems have been published under the government’s policy. The government put efforts to keep open APIs stable and scalable. It failed to achieve that in the CoWIN platform as open APIs are being used to open back-end information channels creating a range of security and management issues in the booking of appointments for the vaccination process.
The CoWIN platform is under a lot of pressure and has been a slowpoke at times. Users have reported that even captcha submission is taking hours.
Long queues at the vaccination centers have prompted software engineers to code in Python based on the API of the CoWIN platform available in the public domain and integrate it with the framework of the CoWIN platform. The bots notify the software engineer whenever fresh stock is made available in the vicinity or at a center they are looking at. They are notified via a text SMS or Whatsapp or Telegram channel.
Though it relieves the people from the cumbersome and slow process of waiting for slots to reopen, it hijacks vaccines from people who are digitally illiterate or lack awareness. Vaccination slots get filled as soon as they come online creating a “Digital divide in the vaccination process”. Along with hacking many websites like GetJab.in, FindSlot.in, under45.in have been created to notify registered users about vaccine availability. These Shortcuts for securing vaccines have led to the slots getting filled in as little as 20 seconds.
Codes were even posted by software engineers on the web which was later deleted due to backlash. One coder confessed, though he had developed the code, later decided not to use it for ethical reasons.
The Postman blog, an API hub, claimed it has been helping people in building API based vaccine locators through its public workspace. Its tool called ‘COVID-19 vaccine locator India’ sends alerts to people on the availability of vaccines. Though it has helped some people secure slots, it has surely hampered the equitable and just process of vaccine distribution by giving some people an unfair technological advantage over others.
The governmental vaccination programme based on “first come is first served” is now “first technology is served”.
CoWIN chief RS Sharma has categorically denied any glitch in the platform that would make the process partial. He claimed the process is dependent on OTP which can’t be done through scripts. Although technological experts have discarded his claim and explained that it can be possible through complex scripts. The process of OTP verification can be done by installing an application on your phone.
The use of open/public APIs to create support tools for making tasks easier and faster is perfectly legal. They can be used by any third party to make tools. A very popular example is the integration of Google Maps in food delivery apps to show the location of food delivery executives.
Although legal, the techniques deployed by the software engineers have led to an impartial distribution of vaccination across the country. If getting a vaccine is correlated with a city’s tech prowess, then the government has something bigger to handle than the pandemic: a glaring digital divide!
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I am a journalism undergrad who loves playing basketball and writing about finance and technology. I believe in the power of words.