The Great Vaccine Hack: Race to Book Slots Turns Into Techathon With Bots And Codes; CoWIN Chief Denies

·4-min read

Opening up of vaccination for all adults amid a massive shortage of doses has led to many techies in India bypass the regular booking system. The vaccination slot booking is now turned into ‘techathon’ with many coders designing a system to receive slot availability alerts and some even automatically booking the slots.

When the CoWin website opened on April 28 for registration and booking of slots for all above 18 to 44 years, the app crashed within minutes. The following days saw slots fully booked any minute you opened the portal to the extent that it became difficult to even book slots for the second dose for those above the age of 45. It became humanly impossible to compete with the speed at which the slots got booked.

“I am a banker located in Kolkata and have been going to office throughout the pandemic. Still, we have not been recognised as a frontline worker. I subscribed to one of these alert systems,” said a member of a Telegram group that sends alerts when a slot opens up in that city. Speaking on condition of anonymity, he said, however, added that he has still not managed to get the jab.

This got techies in Bengaluru, Chennai and other cities crack codes and write scripts. These scripts check for 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. Some bots send alerts via SMS, telegram, Whatsapp and mail.

Some of these telegram groups, like ‘U45 Bengaluru BBMP’, has more than 20,000 members. Each time an alert is seen on the group, the slots get booked within a minute or two. These services are offered by individuals and large companies.

“Once I got a notification, I immediately booked. It was like a ‘fastest fingers first’ contest. When I tried to book a second slot, it was all booked. That’s how fast it is,” said Pune-based IT professional Richa Maheshwari.

“I have been tracking the notifications on the Telegram groups — one in Bangalore and one in Nagpur — for three days now. I could not book for myself in Bengaluru, but I managed to book a slot for my sister in Nagpur which indicates what the traffic is like in these two places,” says Sumeet Chawla, a programme manager.

Berty Thomas, a business analyst from Chennai, is working behind these groups. The initiative came after he tried to book a slot for himself for April 29.

“There was an API (application programming interface) and I thought why not write a script that will use the API to filter out slots relevant for my age group and alert me when it is available. I was able to find a slot and book it through CoWIN. Then I thought why not put it out for the public as well. Right now, what we have is Telegram channels for different cities. People can join this. The script will check for CoWIN API and whenever a slot is available, it will alert that group and they can book on the portal,” says Berty.

However, CowIN Chief RS Sharma has denied any possibility of such an initiative and even challenged those who claimed otherwise. Most states, including Karnataka, have made it clear that the 18-44 age group will wait have to wait longer before they can take the jab with a severe shortage of vaccine to even inoculate the 45+ group awaiting their second shots.

“For 18+ group, vaccination should start post May 15. That is when we are expected to receive the vaccines,” said Karnataka Health Minister K Sudhakar.

According to the state’s submission in the high court on Wednesday, it has inoculated more than 80 lakh with the first dose and only about 20 lakh with the second dose. The state has less than 80,000 doses left for vaccinating the remaining 60-lakh odd people.

While booking slots through codes and scripts may not be illegal, it has surely made the digital divide more apparent. It has made the vaccination process exclusionary and privileges more pronounced. These scripts require some knowledge of coding and also laptops and good access to the internet, which the majority of India does not have access to.

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