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Transport / Shetland coder helps NorthLink upgrade ‘old school’ ferry booking system

LIFELINE ferry operator NorthLink is introducing a new availability calendar to its booking system that will allow travellers for the first time to see available cabin and car deck spaces to assist in their journey planning – all thanks to a local computer whizz.

In the past people had to go through the onerous process of booking a journey with a cabin on a given day only to find shortly before confirming the booking that no space for their car was available on the same night’s sailing.

The shortage of cabin and car spaces is a particular issue during summer months when both ferries are often fully booked.

Many islanders have over recent months vented their frustrations with the lifeline ferry service, predominantly in social media posts.

This is now all about to change: NorthLink boss Stuart Garrett will tell a meeting of the Shetland External Transport Forum this afternoon (Tuesday) that these limitations have now been overcome as the ferry operator launches a new availability calendar at https://www.northlinkferries.co.uk/availability-calendar/ (link becomes live later this afternoon).

James Stewart: ‘There’s no black magic or hacking involved ‘.

The changes came about thanks to software engineer James Stewart who, frustrated with the “old school” system, devised his own based on data he was able to pull from the NorthLink website.

He then offered the improvements to the ferry company at the end of last year.

However, it was only after Shetland News contacted NorthLink to find out why it had not responded to Stewart’s approach that the company started listening and became interested in the business preposition.

Fast forward twelve months, and NorthLink’s e-marketing manager Magnus Dixon has just completed the final testing of the system.

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“The new system will allow people to plan based on availability which has been an issue given how popular our ships have been lately,” Dixon said.

“People will be able to look ahead for however long bookings are open in the system, which is at the moment until the end of March 2024.”

Stewart, originally from Lerwick but now living in Ayrshire, said the idea came from complaints made by his wife and brother about the difficulty in trying to find available pet cabins when travelling back north to see family.

When calling the booking office to help track down these elusive cabins, they discovered that staff had no additional tools to help them.

That event spurred Stewart on to investigate how the data in the company’s booking system could be better presented.

“There’s no black magic or hacking involved in this process – all the data that I am pulling from NorthLink’s system is available to any user who accesses their website,” he said.

“You can find it, if you know where to look.”

NorthLink passenger ferry Hjaltland berthing at Holmsgarth. Photo: Shetland News

Stewart previously launched a modern online Shetland Dictionary (Da Spaektionary – https://spaek.org) and a thorough database of Shetland’s former political characters and election results.

He added: “I emailed a few people at NorthLink to let them know I wanted to talk about it, explaining how it could help but didn’t hear much back.

“Then I went to Shetland News to see if they wanted to do a story on it, for two reasons: Shetland News are good with digital stories and, to be quite honest, I wanted to use Shetland News to try to provoke a response from NorthLink.

“Thanks to the connection given to me by Shetland News, NorthLink got in touch with me around December 2022, and we started to have a number of meetings between NorthLink, Serco and, eventually, the company that builds and maintains NorthLink’s website (Softronic).”

Describing the initial contact with ferry operator like “turning a tanker”, Stewart said he was keen to praise the team at NorthLink, and particularly now retired commercial director Jim Dow who was “great to deal with especially as he saw the benefit of it and worked hard to make it happen”.

Adding that NorthLink perhaps was not aware of the opportunities that were available, Stewart said that there are other features he demonstrated to them that have not been carried forward at this time.

“For example, I demonstrated to NorthLink how we could set up a waiting list that would send a text message to people trying to get a car on a well-booked ferry at short notice, for example,” he said.

“I wanted to hook into a flight price data source and present the Sumburgh-Aberdeen flight route price alongside the boat to help Shetlanders find the cheapest route, but it never came to pass,” he added.

“There are undoubtedly a number of problems in Shetland for which a digital solution might be the answer – I would love to find the next thing, even if it isn’t a commercial thing.”

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