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'It's badly run' - Returnee details frustration of marathon wait to secure voucher for MIQ facility

Software developers are calling for the Covid-19 managed isolation and quarantine booking system to be overhauled after “unprecedented demand” crashed the website last week.

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There were 1 million hits on the site during one day alone. Source: 1 NEWS

Returning Kiwis need to book vouchers for MIQ rooms before coming home, with the booking site receiving 10,000 logins and one million hits last Friday.

Australia-based Kiwi Moni Jowsey says she’d tried for hours to secure a voucher over the weekend, but kept getting an error message.

“It was a six hour block, the next day a five hour block, then I woke up at one in the morning… It's a badly run sequence of software.”

While she’s secured a voucher now after a month of trying, she says the “lottery” of ticket allocation isn’t fair.

“I could have been there for seven days, someone else might have been there for an hour, there’s no organisational sequence. I’m not sure that’s really ethical.”

Computer programmer Andrew Connell says the current booking system doesn’t make sense, and the way users are encouraged to book vouchers replicates a denial of service attack, usually used by hackers to shut down websites.

“A distributed denial of service attack is when someone or a group of people gets a lot of computers around the world to constantly connect to a server and deny everyone else from the resources.

“Normally it's an actual co-ordinated attack against a site but in this case [MIQ] have created a situation where they're forcing everyone to do this, because the faster you refresh the more likely you are to get a spot.”

After experiencing the frustration of trying to get home to New Zealand himself, he’s created a bot that shares the release times of vouchers on Twitter.

He says that’s helped several Kiwis get home, but he wants to see voucher booking made more efficient and fair, with people put in a queue rather than having to refresh repeatedly.

“I don’t think it would be difficult to set up a queuing system…You would sign up for a date or a series of dates and you just get in the queue. They can be allocated to people first in first served which would be the fairest way rather than people with the most time on their hands or technical skills.”

Dan* another programmer who’s booked more than 100 vouchers for Kiwis trying to return says the voucher booking system “would not be deemed fit for purpose in any commercial project”.

“It has all of the restraints of a limited capacity booking website (eg. concert or sports tickets), with none of the features that are usually present in such systems for handling of volume and transaction processing.

“Regardless of who was responsible for the specification and build, there has been ample time for improvement and little or no response to suggestions offered.”

He says the voucher system could be scrapped all together, with airlines and immigration in charge of managing capacity and flights into the country. Alternatively, he says an Application Programming Interface or API could be introduced, where vouchers are linked to airline schedules.

“Benefits would include no searching, refreshing and competing for vouchers. Capacity is controlled by controlling the airline schedules.”

MIQ Deputy Secretary Megan Main says she’s happy with the way the system is working.

“We built the system at pace, we built in three months what would normally take six months to build. But the system is working. Since it went live we've had 100,000 people able to book vouchers. Any website would struggle with the level of demand we had.”

She wouldn’t commit to any immediate changes to the voucher booking system.

“We’re working all the time with our developers on ways we can improve the system including looking at things like waitlisting…changes take time to work through.”

In January 1 NEWS revealed coders were creating programmes to book vouchers in a fraction of the time it takes for a real person.

The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment reviewed its systems twice to stop it from happening, but Dan says the interventions have improved his chances, and he’s secured vouchers for about 150 people since the system reviews.

“In total I have secured vouchers for what must be over 200 people. Mostly I have helped individuals…those who have extreme or urgent needs to travel due to illness…or death of a family member.

“Changes made to the site have increased my conversion rates to over 90% from about 75% before the change. This is because although my process has been slowed by about 1.5 seconds…a human user has on average been slowed by 2-4 seconds or more.”

*Name has been changed

Do you have a story about MIQ? Email our reporter Kristin Hall on kristin.hall@tvnz.co.nz