Last weekend, I was part of a rather novel experience.
A group of us designed a portal that pulled data from the Co-WIN APIs to showcase where the vaccine slots were available.
This was novel and interesting for two reasons: I am not a techie and can barely say the full form of API without googling – the team that came together to make this portal was quite unexpected. Last September, I had written an OpEd taking about the three As of vaccines: availability, access and affordability. This exercise gave me an idea of how well the system worked on these dimensions.
The story behind the portal
I am on a WhatsApp group of school friends from Class X. I am largely an observer there with little interactions. This group of friends from my school in a suburb of Kolkata are an interesting microcosm of those born in early 80’s and educated in West Bengal. Many of them are in and around Kolkata but the group is geographically wide enough to have batchmates from across the country and globe.
I saw Ankur, a batchmate, put up a link to say that Co-WIN APIs are public. I was intrigued by it and reached out to ask if this facility could be put to good use. Ankur is someone I would have last spoken with in 1997 when we appeared for our Class X. So, practically, we re-engaged after a quarter century! Even then, till the whole output came up, our coordination was on WhatsApp – we spoke only after the site was up.
Sandhya had been helping me over the last year. I got to know her through a common friend a year or so ago and she worked with me on my latest book, Through the Looking Glass. She was the marketing guru who advised me on my book’s cover design, marketing plans, social media, and helped put together this website. It was good that we were working on the book and had the website ready – it allowed us a quick place to host our analysis and tool.
Ankur was clear that he is a techie and would need UI/UX support. Sandhya could do basic tech and has reasonable sense of UI/UX but was not very deep from a tech perspective. She roped in a friend Alok who came on to advise on the tech and UI/UX interfaces.
All of us got into this for the excitement of seeing how this would work. We hosted the work that Ankur did on my website. I used my social media to talk about this innovative idea. Our Twitter and LinkedIn posts were seen many tens of thousands of times. The portal saw a sudden increase in traffic with more than eighteen thousand unique users coming in – this in spite of only a single burst of marketing last Monday morning.
We all started doing this pro bono in our spare time. For one, I was naïve enough to think that if you have APIs, getting outputs is a simple affair! No, it is not! This is a big learning in IT project management. We also realized that if we wanted to make an alert system (where people could choose to leave with us which pin code or district they were interested in), we needed to spend some monies on appropriate software. Also, if we really wanted to ramp this up, we would need server capacity to be hired and the technology through in more details. There were some discussions on how to think about privacy and data storage if people were to leave their emails with us.
Over time, many health-related companies and other portals came into this field. For us, this has been an interesting exercise to see how Digital India works: both because of how we all came together to make this and the government’s use of tech in such an open manner made for many interesting experiments and outputs by common public.
I was quite surprised to receive emails from interesting, qualified people in the tech world offering us support. Others wrote in to say that they want vaccinations at particular time slots. Many were disappointed that their city or state did not feature in our list. (The reason it did not feature is simply because there may have been no availability when they checked – we were refreshing every five minutes). The overall demand and interest in this idea was very high.
The Co-WIN team also made some changes. They reduced the refresh frequency and number of points that could be fetched. In any case, this did not matter much – many cities saw the filling up of slots as soon as they opened. People found new “hacks” into the system: some figured out timings on when slots are released; others found out that rural areas had availability and they could book and go there for shots; others reported that in some places if you go line up early in the morning, they give you a token for vaccinations.
While this API pull-based device was useful to have, the Indian customer had found Indian solutions.
The three As
This takes us to the three As that we spoke of last year: availability, access and affordability.
Availability: In a previous note, I modelled the vaccine market in India. We noted that if newer sets of vaccines can come in and India can improve its ability to give one crore doses a day, then by the end of this calendar year, we stand a chance of vaccinating the entire adult population in India. Availability is difficult to forecast with many variables on which vaccines are coming in, when, at what price points, and in which segment (public or private), etc. However, what is clear is that India still needs around two billion doses to be administered. Availability will hence be a critical metric to track and apps like ours are a way to get a sense of direction on the same.
Access: I made this point last September: “The government should invest its energies in getting the doses, not in administering the system that administers the doses. If an elaborate system of maintaining records is kept, it can lead to undue bureaucratic delays and hold-ups. Anyone who wants to take a vaccination shot should be allowed to without the need to show any documents. The crisis is not the time to create a health registry or a digital health id.”
The Co-WIN app, while very intuitive and easy to use, still requires people to be reasonably digitally proficient. Some news items emerging over the last few days suggest that states want to make their own changes, Co-WIN itself may change its processes to include a four-digit OTP, etc. The Co-WIN app has worked reasonably well for the initial rounds of vaccinations: it is important that access to vaccinations becomes more and more easy via tech, rather than complicated.
Affordability: A large part of the vaccine “market” in India will largely be purchases by Central and State governments which will be administered to the citizens free of cost. Many states have already announced free vaccinations for all its citizens and others may also follow suit. People who can afford it may choose to pay for the vaccine and get it from the private market. Given the wide array of choices now available, it is possible that the system will settle down into an equilibrium once the availability appears to be sorted.
The virus has caused many a surprise in its mutation and outbreak, especially over the last month. The response and fight-back will shape the future for many of those who are directly impacted and for the rest who have remained safe in this round. Vaccination is the safest way to a post-Covid world. As we move towards universal vaccination, it will be useful to use tech as a means of making vaccines available, accessible, and affordable for all our fellow citizens.
This turned out to be a very valuable exercise in understanding tech, policy and analysis, but most important, working with a friend after more than two decades – and all this digitally from home.