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Forest Service to Open Up Campsite Bookings

An updated RFP from the USDA Forest Service considers opening campsite booking to third parties, so reserving a campsite would be like booking a hotel room.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Forest Service office is looking to open up campsite reservations on federal lands -- so they would operate much like hotel reservations -- according to new language in a draft RFP released Feb. 3.

In a hunt for a new tech vendor to support the federal government's campsite booking website, the USDA  released revised wording that requires an open data solution for third parties to access real-time campsite availability, a move that paves the way for possible online reservation commissions for entrepreneurs and private companies.

The added specificity is the result of an outcry from the civic tech community, which expressed concerns of a potential monopoly given to the winning vendor for campsite booking commissions. Advocates, who organized within the lobbying group Access Land, included small tech startups, nonprofits in the tech sector like Code for America, and large recreation retailers such as REI.

The release marks the second and final chance for comments on proposed changes to the draft RFP, due Feb. 17, that will secure a new 10-year contract for the agency — a contract currently held by the ACTIVE Network, which in 2013 received $14.5 million from the feds for its suite of services.

“At the end of the day, we all want the same thing,” Rick DeLappe, Recreation One-Stop program manager, who coordinates the RFP, said in a press release. “We want to provide the public with a service that makes it easy to find information about places they want to go and to reserve adventures they want to have on America’s federal lands.”

Despite the USDA’s new wording, civic technologists may see the contract lacking strength. After an initial solicitation in October, the RFP was criticized for the absence of a requirement  mandating an application programming interface, or API -- a technology that would ensure companies could book reservations on national lands via their individual websites. Similarly, lacking from this updated draft are suggested commission rates for booking should they be allowed.

Responding to such concerns in an accompanying press release, DeLappe said the decision to omit an API stemmed from desires for flexibility and longevity.

“[An] API is the technology for sharing data today,” DeLappe said, "but requiring this technology over the life of a 10-year contract would jeopardize the use of new and innovative approaches for data sharing in the next decade.”

For its open-ended approach, the USDA did indicate a requirement for vendors applying for the contract to submit a collaboration strategy to partner with outside parties on booking so it’s available from “multiple channels.”

Jason Shueh is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.