The CoWIN Masterstroke

The platform, developed in 12 days and improvised over time, is driving the world's largest COVID-19 vaccination programme

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It was a race against time. The government of India had decided to start vaccinating the population to prevent the spread of COVID-19 virus on January 16, 2021. The task on hand was massive: two doses for nearly 1.4 billion people; 2.8 billion doses to be administered in total. How does one keep a track of such a humongous set of data?

Dr RS Sharma

Around the start of January 2021, Dr R.S. Sharma was asked to create a system that would capture the details of the drive which was to vaccinate one-sixth of the world’s population. Sharma, chief executive officer, National Health Authority, comes with a legacy of being one of the main brains behind creating and implementing Aadhaar.

He quickly got on with the task and assembled a team of five core members, most of whom had worked on the Aadhaar project. “The Honorable Prime Minister told us that even if we don't do it right the first day on 16 January, it can be improvised during the 28 days by the time the second dose is due,” recalled Sharma.

The team within 12 days came with the CoWIN platform which today is helping millions of Indians to book hassle-free vaccination appointments across the country and many countries have shown interest in adopting the system.

The Making

The question before Sharma and his team was to decide an architecture which is flexible and scalable; and whether it should be an app or a platform.

“Obviously, when there are multiple stakeholders who are responsible for carrying off this drive, then you need to have some kind of structure where everybody can plug-in with its own role,” said Sharma.  The team visualized that a common person would like to see where the vaccines are available, and register herself to get an appointment. A hospital would like to publish a timetable, a vaccinator would like to record the vaccination event and then finally, a person would like to download the certificate of vaccination as a proof.

“Because there are multiple stakeholders who are going to interact with this digital platform, therefore an app, we realized, was not really the suitable structure. What was required was that you build a platform and you build apps which can interface and interact with that platform and also you should publish the interface publicly so that others can also build those apps,” added Sharma.

As of today, at least 36 organizations, both government and private, have plugged in their apps or portals thorough CoWIN’s application programming interface (API). In addition, more than 200 have been granted access and more than 100 applications have been received. The ministry of external affairs is also in dialogues with various countries who want to use the CoWIN platform.

The Architecture Challenge

To undertake the creation of the platform, the government created an empowered committee which was given the power to design, develop and actually roll-out the software. Sharma made the basic tenet clear at the very beginning: “It is the policy which should direct the technology and not the other way round.”

“I was aware that it is the policy that will have to direct the technology and the technology will have to comply with the policy architecture and we were aware that a lot of changes will take place.”

With the help of his five-member team, most of whom Sharma knew from his UIDAI and chief secretary of Jharkhand days, and a few advisors, an overarching principle was decided: it should be an inclusive system.

“You cannot expect people to remember the username and password,” said Sharma. The team decided that one should be able to key in the mobile number and get a one-time password. The team also realized that everyone does not have a smartphone or does not have a mobile. It was decided that four people can be registered with each mobile number so that one can register a family at one go. “Our overarching considerations apart from being inclusive was that it should be an open system, it should be based on open standards. We were also very clear that we will not use any proprietary databases or proprietary stuff.”

The team mostly used open source software and freely available tools.

Reminiscing the Aadhaar episode, Sharma recalled that he joined Aadhaar in 2009 and the first Aadhaar number was issued in September 2010. It took 15 months to issue the first Aadhaar number and that was because the entire architecture was designed, and a proof of concept was done. “We had the luxury of a course of 15 months to perfect that whole thing. We this time did not have that luxury. But however we had the experience. So that experience actually was able to shorten the time of development.”

The CoWIN platform today is complaint with all world standards and the certificate issued is globally accepted.

Use Cases of CoWIN After COVID Vaccination?

“There are many. For example, the universal immunization portal. I think we can make it much more efficient. We can register if a child has got the first dose of polio or we know that her second dose is due or if his diphtheria course is due. We can actually take the parent’s mobile number and keep a record, and give reminders.”

The proposal to utilize the CoWIN platform for universal immunization has already got the approval of the Union health ministry.

While there are many other programmes under consideration to use the CoWIN platform, or the architecture rather, Sharma thinks “there can be huge number of such use cases where this platform can be repurposed to do good things. Health space itself we can find many use cases”.