If you want to book a vaccine appointment right now, you’ll probably not be able to do that. Why? Because about 136 crore people are likely trying to do just that, and the Indian government’s COWIN portal is the only way. However, startups and developers will have you believe there are other portals from which vaccine registrations can be done. Well…that’s not true. Ok, it’s true, but not completely. There is a genuine shortage of vaccines, and Adar Poonawalla (the man who runs Serum Institute of India, which is producing the COVISHIELD vaccine), has himself said that the shortage will continue till at least June this year.
From a tech point of view though, vaccine registration portals work a certain way. Every vaccine registration portal you see today is tapping into the COWIN portal, because that’s the official one created by the Indian government, and the only way to get central data. Companies built platforms that can tap in to public APIs that give them data from the COWIN portal. Here’s how things work.
What are alternate vaccine registration portals?
As mentioned above, the COWIN platform is the only place where data about vaccines is available. It taps into government databases that hold information about how many vaccine doses are available, in what hospitals and centres, and at what time slots. No matter what anyone tells you, there is no other website or platform that can have this data right now. What they can do, however, is ask the government to share this data with themselves.
For this, The COWIN platform has public application programming interfaces (APIs), which allows others to tap into this data without actually looking at it. This is how alternate vaccine registration and alert portals are created.
What are APIs?
APIs are sort of the cornerstone of app development today. Take Zomato or Swiggy for example. They need to know where you live, show that data to the rider, show them the way to your house, and also show you where the rider is. Similarly, when you get into a Uber or Ola cab, you’ll notice that the driver’s phone moves to Google Maps.
All this is done by tapping APIs that Google offers others for Google Maps. Without these APIs, every company that needs maps and direction data, will have to build their own version of Google Maps, OpenStreet Maps or some other mapping tools. API calls are at the centre of how most apps work nowadays.
And just like Google, the COWIN portal has public APIs as well, and they are available to anyone for free. The alternate portals tap into these APIs to get data. So, when you’re going to an alternate vaccine registration portal, what you’re essentially doing is entering data into the COWIN portal. You’re just doing it into a different user interface. The website you use feeds the data to the COWIN APIs, which return information that is sought from them.
While all this happens instantly, API calls can be inaccurate at times. That doesn’t mean they’ll return the wrong data (though that happens on poorly coded platforms too), but they can be slow at times.
You see, every time you’re going to an alternate vaccine portal, the data is still coming from COWIN servers. Which means that if the COWIN servers are down, the alternate portal(s) will go down too. With alternate portals popping up like hot cakes, these APIs can become even slower, meaning that the results you see can sometimes be delayed too.
Additionally, delays can also happen from an updating level. For instance, a hospital might be late to update the number of slots available to it, in which case the API won’t have real time data available. Delays are also worked in at times to deter people from making bots that book slots automatically.
Either way, doesn’t matter what the reason, the bottomline is that API calls can be delayed, which is perhaps why the government has provided a disclaimer about the same as well.
So alternate vaccine portals don’t work?
No. The public APIs are created so that alternate portals can exist. They’re also created so that hospitals, medical services and others can tap into them to update the central government database when required. It just means that alternate portals will work when COWIN does, and they won’t when COWIN is down.
Having said that, what changes with alternate portals is the fact that they can come up with new features. For instance, Vaccinateme.in will let you set alerts for when slots are available in your area. Companies and other developers can also create new interfaces, better apps for mobile and build more services on top of this. For instance, Uber could technically build a system where a cab is booked for you in advance, based on your vaccination slot. You get the drift.
How to Spot Fake Vaccine Platforms?
There are fake vaccine portals out there, and they can do damage and help hackers steal your data. It’s important to be careful with what portals you access, and the best way to know what’s dependable and what’s not is by looking at what data they ask. For instance, the COWIN portal will never ask you for payment information, or your Gmail password etc. So you’ll never need to provide such data on any alternate portal too. A good rule of thumb would be to avoid any portal that asks for additional personal details, because they don’t need it.
Here are some portals you could try:
- Vaccinateme.in, made by HealthifyMe
Remember, there is absolutely no reason for anyone to ask you to create an account, pay for the vaccine through their payments links, ask for personal information that can be used to find your other passwords, etc.
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