In May, 20,000 bunks on the Milford Track were snapped up in minutes, and it seems many hut booking systems suffers the same fate, its not a question of being quick, its luck. Then a lot of those who do manage to book, book multiple options and cancel as they don’t need them.
James Morgan said ‘enough is enough’ and built an app tracks cancellations, telling those people who missed out if and when a bed becomes available. Smart idea we caught up with James and dug a little deeper.
Who is James Morgan?
Well, I am a 29 year old Aucklander who has a natural love for hiking and the outdoors. Particularly during the Covid lockdowns we started ticking off every walk around Auckland and ever since we have been trying to get out as much as possible on the weekends to go hiking and explore NZ’s walks.
As a software developer – exactly what is it that you do when not designing tramping apps?
For work I lead the analytics team for the advertising company called dentsu. We have data scientists, analysts and engineers that work on a range of different things, but mostly we aim to draw insights that help us to ensure that the media that dentsu buys for its clients is as effective as possible.
Are you involved in the coding aspect or the concept and the design or all three?
I was involved across all three of these. I have quite a bit of backend development experience which came in particularly handy for designing and building the applications core functionality. I then connected this up to a frontend template that I found online and modified, which gives you the look and feel that you can see today.
How did the idea of the app come about?
The idea came from my partner’s parents who were trying to book the Routeburn huts with no luck, so I built the first iteration of the tool which purely looked for their walk dates and had no nice user interface to use. After they managed to get 4 spots through using the tool, I figured that booking huts on these trails is a common problem and lots of other people would value a tool like this to help them to book as well.
Explain how it works?
The application has two components, the scanning component, and the alerts component. The scanning component is constantly scanning for hut availability across all the Great Walks for the current season. Then the alerts component tries to match the scan with an alert that someone has set up. If there is a match, then that person will receive an email notifying them that a spot is available at their hut and that they should go ahead and book whilst the spot is still available.
There are bots out there that prefill in booking forms and re-apply – this is not that correct?
Whilst these tools probably exist in the world, DOC mentioned that “they had seen no evidence of “automatic” generation or pre-filled forms being submitted by scripts. All the bookings last year were connected to at least one real hiker”.
I also decided not to go down this route as DOC really does frown upon these kinds of applications as well and I want to ensure I am working in a way that they are comfortable with. There are also people looking for the same spots as one another and I want to ensure that everyone has a fair chance in securing their spot, so making the actual booking isn’t really an option for my application.
Please explain exactly how it work for the user?
People can get use the application to secure their spot in 3 simple steps;
- Jump onto the website and enter the details for the hut and date that you are trying to book.
- If there are spots available that match the alert, then the application will immediately send that person an email to let them know that there is an available alert.
- That person can then follow the link to the DOC booking system as soon as the notification comes through to secure their spot before it is taken.
Is there a cost?
Not currently, the application is free to everyone who is wanting to use it.
Have you had any feedback from DoC by way of support or at all?
DOC said that they are “neutral” on the use of such apps, but they do “support initiatives that help visitors”. They are however very clear that they do condone the use of bots to make the actual bookings.
Are these types of independent apps available in other countries?
My application is available to anyone who is wanting to use it, regardless of their country. Anyone visiting New Zealand can also book these huts so I see no reason to limit its use.
Are you surprised – seeing this is a ‘service’ that DoC has not already started a similar system?
Yes, I am surprised as the way that I see it is that a notifications service these days is a natural part of any bookings system. It improves customer service / satisfaction as well as helps to ensure that your facilities are at maximum occupancy. However, they mentioned that they have no plan to set up their own waiting list or notifications app.
A lot of countries have permit and even ballot options simply to walk in an area let alone stay – do you think this this would be a solution to overcrowding?
That’s a good question. I think that having some of the availability on ballot might work, but the nature of these bookings is that people are also constantly changing their plans and cancelling their spot, and I think a purely balloted system might struggle with this. I also feel that those people who are willing to put in the effort to be there ready for when the season opens or jumping into the website when a spot opens should also be rewarded.
Do you intend to expand the app?
Yes, there has been lots of demand for this application to be extended to cover some of the other high occupancy huts that DOC has. I am currently working to build this out as a new feature to be released over the coming months.
Have you any more projects in the wings that we should know about?
I always have lots of ideas for projects, but for now my focus is on perfecting this application and expanding it into some of the other high occupancy huts.