Advocates Call for Open Data in Outdoor Recreation (Contributed)

To unlock the full potential of open data, the USDA contract for Recreation.gov must encourage entrepreneurs to build third-party “retail” applications.

by Alyssa Ravasio / March 10, 2015
Alyssa Ravasio is the founder of Hipcamp, an online booking site for campers; and the chairperson for Access Land, an open data lobbying group for recreation. Alyssa Ravasio

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is in the midst of revising a 10-year and roughly  $150 million RFP for the management of Recreation.gov, the federal campsite reservation system — and this contract will determine how Americans access their public lands for the next decade.

I am the founder and CEO of Hipcamp, a website that helps people discover and book great place to camp, and chairperson of the open data advocacy group Access Land. I am in many parallel conversations with other park agencies, and they are all waiting to see what the USDA will decide.

Last week, I attended an event at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government with some of the thought leaders who are redefining the interface between government and technology, including former U.S. CTO and White House Technology Advisor Todd Park, U.S. Chief Data Scientist and Deputy CTO D.J. Patil, former U.S. CTO Aneesh Chopra, and former Deputy U.S. CTO Nick Sinai.

This event helped evolve my thinking on Recreation.gov and the future of government technology. Some of the core themes were Tim O’Reilly’s concept of government as a platform, and the wholesale and retail model of government services — both of which are included in the Recreation.gov RFP. Wholesale is foundational infrastructure: databases, hosting, point-of-sale, and APIs. Retail is the public-facing Recreation.gov website, mobile application and potential third-party applications.

To unlock the full potential of open data, the contract must encourage entrepreneurs to build third-party “retail” applications. This will harness the creativity of the private sector to reach the next generation of conservationists and inspire more Americans to connect with their public lands. “Success” can be measured by the number of third-party applications that are built on the Recreation.gov platform, and the impact of these applications.

Wholesale and retail provide a framework for how the government should structure the business model for the contractor and third parties. When a customer books a campsite using a third-party app, a set portion of the booking fee goes the contractor for the infrastructure that supports this transaction (wholesale), and the other part of the fee goes to the third-party application (retail). When a customer books through the official Recreation.gov website or mobile application, the contractor receives the entire user fee.

It is worth noting that in the ideal model, these two functions of Recreation.gov would have been procured separately  —  contracting one company to build the “wholesale” infrastructure, and another to build the creative “retail” consumer applications. But by requiring a clear and fair commission incentive for third parties, most of the benefits can still be realized.

The government can insure the quality of the “wholesale” infrastructure by requiring that the contractor build the official Recreation.gov website and mobile app using only the same “wholesale” infrastructure offered to third parties. This is known as “dogfooding” — when a company uses its own products or services that are designed for external use as well. It is considered best practice in technology companies.

The progress made to date — by opening the real-time availability data API, developing an API for the Recreation Information Database (RIDB), and ensuring that all data in Recreation.gov is accessible by default —  are crucial first steps, which should be congratulated.

The last step to unlocking the benefits of open data is to align incentives for third parties. A clear commission structure will encourage them to build applications that should:

  1. Increase visitation. The travel industry has proven that competition in distribution will grow sales  —  especially with under-used inventory, such as lesser known parks and dates in the shoulder season. This will increase revenue for both the government and local economies, while boosting the outdoor industry as a whole.
  2. Reach new and diverse demographics. With a diverse range of third-party companies competing to reach outdoor customers, we can expect new and diverse demographics to be reached in meaningful ways.
  3. Help define the model for the next-generation of Public-Private Partnerships (PPP). Historical models of PPP fell short and failed to take full opportunity of the creativity of the private sector.  Recreation.gov is a clear opportunity to design a successful PPP model that works and will inspire other agencies to do the same.
  4. Inspire the next generation of public land supporters and conservationists. Young entrepreneurs will build applications that will make public land relevant and accessible to their peers using the latest technologies.

Thank you to those who will determine the final contract for Recreation.gov for all their hard work to connect the public with their land. I’m excited for the future Recreation.gov and the potential it holds for the future of our public lands.

Alyssa Ravasio is the founder and CEO of Hipcamp and the chairperson of the open data advocacy group Access Lands. You can follow her on Twitter at @alyraz.