Software developer's ideas to improve 'cruel' MIQ booking system

Source: 1News

More than 130,000 people have been through New Zealand’s managed isolation and quarantine facilities in the 16 months they’ve been in operation. But, getting a spot at one of 32 facilities remains a hurdle for so many with legitimate reasons for travelling. 

Securing a voucher requires someone to either constantly refresh the MIQ booking website, pay someone to book a room for them, use a tool to automate the booking process, or rely on luck. When vouchers for November were released, they were all snapped up within 90 minutes. 

It’s prompted many to call for a waitlist system , including expat Kiwi software developer Ben Morrison. 

For US$3, Morrison’s tool  will automatically text and email someone when an MIQ spot is available on a date they choose. People then have to manually book the room from there.

He said his tool aimed to improve a “massive problem” with the system. While he couldn’t make it free because it cost him to run the site, he made a “deliberate decision” to make it as affordable as possible so everyone could have a fair chance.

“I don’t know any other system where you don’t know when tickets are going to become on sale,” Morrison told Breakfast. 

“Right now, they don’t tell you when those tickets are going to become available. So the only way … is constantly checking that website. 

“That’s actually impossible to do. How can you check a website every hour 24 hours a day for weeks on end? You can’t. I think that’s cruel.”

Morrison has penned an open letter to Megan Main, the deputy chief executive of MIQ. He makes suggestions that he thinks would improve the booking experience: that the Government should publish the time they release new vouchers and that automated booking bots should be stopped or slowed. 

However, when 1 NEWS asked Main about the topic earlier, she said implementing a waitlist “pushes the problem further up the pipeline”.  

“What we don’t want is a lot of people who don’t need vouchers anymore because their plans have changed staying on the waitlist, which means that people appear to be waiting months for a voucher.” 

Meanwhile, acting joint head of managed isolation Andrew Milne said while a waitlist is under consideration, it would be “extremely complex” and “present other challenges”. 

"People might have thousands of people ahead of them in a queue, with little chance of securing a voucher - this is likely to be the outcome from one massive waitlist or even a waitlist by month or date. There is also a lot of complexity in how to manage travellers who are flexible with dates and those needing specific dates.”

But Morrison argues in his letter that while the waitlist won’t increase the supply of beds, it would free people from the “grind, stress, and anxiety” of constantly refreshing the booking website. 

A waitlist would also signal to people whether they need to shift travel dates, depending on demand, he said.

He’s also offering to create a waitlist system for the Government and donate it to them “if they can’t figure out how to do it”. 

“What frustrates me is that this is something very simple that could be done to make this system actually work,” he said. 

“I think the whole system is great, people need to go into quarantine, but I think there needs to be a way we can actually book a spot when we need it, or be told straight away there’s no way you’re getting back on December 20 because that’s such a popular date.”

Morrison also suggests adding two-factor authentication to slow automated scripts that give people a head-start when booking vouchers.

Speaking on Breakfast after Morrison, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern acknowledged there were improvements that needed to be made to the booking system.

But, she added, about 4000 people were going through MIQ every two weeks, which was still a significant number. 

In regards to the "refresh issue", Ardern said officials might have designed the system “to take account people are in different time zones”. She said if tickets were released en masse, people in parts of the world may miss out. 

She said Ministers were also considering whether they would notify people in future when a large number of spots are released.

Officials were also tackling the issue of automated "bots" that give people a head-start when booking rooms, Ardern said.

“We are looking at whether or not we can reduce down that automated engagement."

When asked whether the country should increase its supply of MIQ rooms, Ardern said officials needed to be careful they weren't introducing "imperfect" facilities at the border. 

She said this would introduce a risk that Covid-19 would leak into the community.

Ben Morrison has created a tool that automatically alerts people when spots become free.