On 16 January, 2021, India launched the largest vaccination drive under the vision of Honorable Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi. Technology has played a crucial role in bringing the idea of universal vaccination closer to reality. The CoWIN platform has been developed to be the digital nerve centre of India’s COVID-19 vaccination process.
However, with evolving technology and the country’s large population, some challenges need to be addressed.
To initiate a dialogue on how technologies such as the CoWIN platform can propel the vaccination drive towards the ultimate goal of Universal Vaccination, Center for ICT for Development (CICTD), IMPRI Impact and Policy Research Institute, New Delhi and The Dialogue organised a panel discussion on Strengthening CoWIN Platform towards Universal Vaccination on 16 June, 2021.
To set the context for the deliberation, IMPRI’s team began the session by providing a brief overview of the CoWIN platform, its features, challenges and steps taken by the government.
Dr R S Sharma, CEO, National Health Authority (NHA), Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, Government of India, provided invaluable insights from the perspective of his role as the implementing authority of the CoWIN platform. In times of scarcity and high demand, the search for essential commodities often results in situations of chaos, confusion and exploitation.
For the vaccination process, there has been a significant gap between supply and demand.
Dr Sharma elaborated that the risk of such situations provides an adequate reason for the government to rely on digital infrastructure despite the significant concern of the digital divide. He emphasised that the pursuit of equality should not mean the abandonment of digital systems; instead, efforts should be undertaken to make the digital systems inclusive.
In citing the advantages of a digital system, he emphasised the mobility and portability provided and the role it plays in delivering transparency and removing the asymmetry of information.
In terms of principles that played a role in creating the platform, Dr Sharma elaborated upon how the fundamental guiding principle has been to keep it people-centric. In this regard, the OTP mechanism and the ability to register additional three citizens was implemented.
About the digital divide, Dr Sharma highlighted that in any discussion about access, it’s equally important to remember that after the Digital India initiative, there are still substantial numbers of smartphone users. Also, the generation of digital certificates plays a crucial role in alleviating challenges that emerge with ensuring that the appropriate second dose is given at the right time.
Dr Sharma also elaborated upon how important it is to remember that registration on the platform is only one step of the process; there are other moving parts such as hospital onboarding wherein records are updated, vaccinator’s module that deals with verification, and finally, the last part which is the generation of the actual certificate.
While the first part can be done on-site as well, the latter three need the support of a digital system. In addressing issues of inclusivity and privacy, he argued that the platform had been made available in regional languages, and it only collects three essential data points. In reference to the problems, he stated that most originate due to human error. However, people invariably blame the platform for issues that are beyond its scope.
He concluded by shedding light on two fundamental principles that guide their work; one is the aim to make the CoWIN platform — the technology backbone that ultimately works under the overall policy guidelines of the government. The other is to work constantly on making the platform citizen-centric. Thus the platform has been working to partner with third-party applications to ensure that citizens have access to better user interfaces while ensuring that a single source of truth exists.
Shri Abhishek Singh, President, and CEO, National e-Governance Division (NeGD), Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY), Government of India, specifically emphasised the need for designing digital systems that are robust and scalable. In referring to systems that had been in place before, Mr Singh stressed how they operated on a smaller scale with much simpler dynamics than CoWIN that has to deal with complexities that arise due to the broader scope and the need for multiple doses.
Therefore, the need to maintain records using digital systems becomes an undeniable necessity. Mr Singh argues that the vaccination drive cannot be undertaken without a robust digital system despite the digital gap.
Additionally, he stated that the need for digital certificates especially comes to the forefront with the increasing necessity of travel, considering that international states would never accept paper certificates. He also states that functionalities have been added to maximize optimacy as and when concerns have arisen.
Thus, it’s essential to acknowledge that the system has been responsive, agile and has evolved according to the situation. The massive numbers of registrations on the platform and the ability to track all information are testaments to the successful functioning of the platform.
Mr Singh stated that while risks exist, as long as the authorities are aware of how the system operates and newer functionalities are being added, all challenges can be addressed. He also appreciated the integration of the CoWIN platform with the Aarogya Setu and other third-party applications, which can then be used as effective tools for tracking the status of vaccination.
To conclude, he stated that the CoWIN platform constitutes a clear, well-designed architecture. It allows for open APIs and establishes a trust-based system with citizens to provide to the world an example that they can follow.
Shri Amit Dubey, Founder, India Future Foundation; National Cyber Security Expert, began his address with a note of appreciation for the CoWIN team stating that changes that should take months have been incorporated within days. From a security point of view, he explained that perceptions are as important as the creation of secure applications and infrastructure.
He further argued that today there is a certain amount of confidence exuded by the public, and it is much harder to mislead them with misinformation.
In this regard, the public’s confidence, according to him, is a hallmark of the credibility bestowed upon organisations behind the creation of CoWIN. He also elaborated upon how in creating a secure platform, the challenges of flexibility arise wherein transparency has to be balanced with privacy.
In reference to the CoWIN platform, he argues that the data is encrypted and proper privilege access management is ensured. However, he also sheds light on how the risks of malware necessitate regular security checks.
To conclude, he stated that the CoWIN platform is secure, and it passes all security assessments better than some private enterprises. Therefore, from a security perspective, the platform has no issues. However, the primary challenge is keeping the public perception intact over a long period, especially when security is a continuous process.
He argues that vested parties will attempt to create distrust and such attempts need to be foiled through the institution of monitoring bodies.
John Santosh, Entrepreneur and Technocrat, tailored his address to provide five solutions to make the platform more efficient. The first is to enable Voice on the platform for those who cannot read any language. It would entail allowing citizens to record their responses. The second is to develop an SMS bot for mass awareness campaigns.
While referring to the infrastructure that existed at the time of demonetisation for creating awareness, Mr John argued that the same infrastructure should be revived.
His third solution concerned itself with promoting the concept of One-Click Vaccination through utilising digital tools that already exist. His fourth solution presents the possibility of CoWIN for corporations to organise health check and vaccination campaigns, thereby making the vaccination process a part of CSR.
His final recommendation put forth a case for instituting Vaccine Warriors through provisions of financial incentive.
In deliberating upon the way forward, all panellists acknowledged the potential of the CoWIN platform with regards to its scalability and data wherein it can be used for other vaccination processes. In addition, the second wave and its resulting shock have made systems such as the CoWIN platform robust and prepared to tackle challenges that might emerge from the third wave.
Mr Santosh emphasised reducing data entry on the CoWIN platform, especially the role of humans so that errors can be avoided. From the point of view of security, Mr Dubey argued that it’s crucial to recognise that the security process is an evolving phenomenon, and there invariably will be new challenges and actors that would deliberately target.
Thus, CoWIN needs to be treated as critical infrastructure; any attacks on perception can have significant repercussions. Mr Singh emphasised how CoWIN as a platform will keep on evolving. More functionalities will be added, especially concerning children and the integration of passports for ease of travel.
He also highlighted the potential of Aarogya Setu’s vaccine status system that plays a crucial role in promoting COVID appropriate behaviour.
He concluded by stating that the experience of the CoWIN platform and the advantages of the digital systems will remain with us. A strong foundation has been laid, and moving forward; we will be secure both in terms of health and cybersecurity. No system is perfect; we learn as we go, systems are improving, and we hope that it will keep improving so that India can present to the world a shining example of Aatmnirbhar Bharat.
Dr Arjun Kumar, Ritika Gupta, Kashish Babbar, Chhavi Kapoor, Rohit Mehta