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Startup Launches Expedia for California Campers

A startup firm uses open data to create an easy-to-navigate website for booking campsites in California. But future access to information about camping in national parks is unclear.

In 2013, nearly 3.7 million visitors — including 1.6 million campers — headed to Yosemite National Park. At some point, these travelers likely ventured onto the park’s official website to book a campsite, only to be forced to navigate page by page, link after link, through a tangle of texts, sidebars, tabs, downloadable PDF maps and dropdown menus. 

But now there's a better way, thanks to open data and some entrepreneurial spirit. Welcome to Hipcamp, the recently launched venture that hopes to be the one-stop shop for campsite booking. Launched in early in 2014 by Founder and CEO Alyssa Ravasio, the new startup takes a camping destination and simplifies it into a single page of traveling tips, activity listings and campsite specifics. The site responsively adjusts to fit screen sizes and allows campers to book sites in only a few clicks. Hipcamp might be likened to an Orbitz or an Expedia for camping enthusiasts.

On Sept. 30, Ravasio announced the company, which started from an idea for a civic tech competition called Ideation Nation, had drawn $2 million in seed funding from from investors like O’Reilly AlphaTech Ventures, Slow Ventures, Maiden Lane Ventures and AngelList’s Syndicate Fund. Other backers included Sam Shank, the founder of Hotel Tonight; and Gregg Brockway, co-founder of Hotwire and TripIt.
“We're still piloting [Hipcamp], and still learning what works and doesn't work but [during the first year] we got a really great head start in providing a better way for people to figure out where they can go,” Ravasio said.

The site only lists California campsites at the moment, but could eventually cover the entire United States. The site's other features include custom campground maps for selecting exact spots, a discovery page for site hunters seeking a twist and an option to “favorite” locales for later visits.

Forthcoming is a social media option for visitors who want advice from others about destinations and trip planning. Ravasio said the camping platform will expand to 10 states and is researching regions while asking for feedback on top states.

While privately built, Hipcamp wishes to include data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. However, this may take some lobbying. The USDA is in the process of  finalizing a prosed RFP that intends to place management of federal campsite data (campsite inventories, cabins and tours) into the care of one contractor and website. Ravasio said she has joined a likeminded lobbying campaign, Access Land, to open the system up by petitioning USDA to revise its RFP to include open data and an open bookings API (application programming interface). The change would permit other travel sites, entrepreneurs and civic hackers to build apps on top of the data.

Ravasio hopes the USDA procurement panel will consider revisions. In light of such concerns the agency has agreed to extend its comment period on the proposal to Nov. 7 — comments directed to USDA Contracting Officer Jason King .  If the data is allowed to be privately controlled, Ravasio said it will not be a deal breaker for Hipcamp, but may compel the company to channel booking services toward privately owned lands. If the data is opened up, she sees many benefiting. "I think it's a really good example of how a public-private partnership can either inhibit innovation or inspire it,” Ravasio said. “But it's not a make or break situation."


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