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USDA Considers Expedia-Like Campsite Booking

After years of having one online option for reserving a campsite on federal lands, the U.S. Department of Agriculture considers opening campsite bookings to third parties, igniting a dispute between open data advocates and traditional tech providers.

A debate over federal campsite information has revealed how data transparency may play a disruptive role in government contracts in coming years.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is at a crossroads after the October release of a draft RFP to refurbish the federal government's campsite booking website, a site hosting multiple departments. Officials' initial solicitation of the RFP spurred immediate criticisms from civic technologists that open data — data published in a digitally legible format without copyright restrictions — wasn't embedded into the request for service. Perhaps most disagreeable was the absence of a requirement for an application programming interface (API) to facilitate equal opportunity for recreation companies to book campsites for consumers — earning commissions alongside the winning vendor that would manage the site. In response, both major players from the recreation industry and their civic tech counterparts formed a coalition, Access Land, petitioning the USDA, which manages the RFP, for a booking API for third party sales.

If the booking API is required, or if the USDA incorporates one by way of a winning proposal, it may mean that federal lands and campsites could be booked like hotels — similar to commercial sites like Expedia. The Access Land coalition has leveraged the Obama Administration’s executive order, enacted in 2013, for federal agencies to incorporate open data as its primary impetus for alterations. Likewise, Access Land contends that anything less inflicts a government-backed monopoly since third-party booking rights and their associated commissions would be allotted at the discretion of the winning contractor. The position is currently held by the ACTIVE Network, paid $14.5 million in 2013 by the federal government for its entire suite of services.

“I think what we're in the midst of seeing is that is transforming from what was going to be a government sanctioned monopoly to a platform that's going to support an ecosystem of applications,” said Access Land Spokesperson Alyssa Ravasio, also CEO and founder of Hipcamp, a campsite booking startup.

In a white paper that proposed solutions and called for the mandatory third-party booking API, Access Land stated that opening the federal government’s inventory of campsites and facilities would connect traditionally underserved demographics to camping opportunities. Similarly, the group estimated increased USDA revenues, a benefit to local economies by additional tourism and the promotion of preservation efforts and healthy lifestyles.

Despite collected commissions, the group estimated revenues for everyone would increase. The white paper suggests a 70/30 percent split in favor of third parties for each campsite transaction processed outside of Access Land's logic says that if third parties can stimulate market growth by 15 percent, and only redirect 10 percent of sales away from the site, revenues will still increase for the contractor.

"I think that's going to be a crowd pleasing win for the Obama Administration. What better case study for what open data can accomplish,” Ravasio said of the forecasted benefits.

Yet the proposed changes to the 10-year contract are not embraced equally by all. The USDA contract is ACTIVE Network’s largest account for campsite reservations out of the additional 33 states it serves. It's probable revenue could be lost in the short term if its revenues were divided among third parties. Beyond this, if states and regional camping destinations followed suit, ACTIVE could see additional competition rally against its bottom line — assuming it wins the renewed contract. 

Despite such hypotheticals, ACTIVE Network’s Gary Evans said he’s not opposed to the API, but is concerned about unseen impacts if it’s not properly deployed.

Different campsites have different regulations, a fact, that needs to be acknowledged in the booking process. Additionally, said Evans, who is vice president and general manager of ACTIVE Outdoors, the division managing, it's unlikely that the site's revenue from campsite transactions is enough to warrant significant interest from third-party vendors, especially if companies account for spillover costs. ACTIVE, Evans said, channels revenue from its transactions to support back-end development, hosting, operations and customer support — in addition to customer-facing aspects of its website.

Further, he said hundreds of ACTIVE staff are employed to accommodate customers in the peak season — a time when requests can number in the thousands each day. Should third-parties be granted control over transactions, he believes they might also have to shoulder part of the customer service, which includes phone calls, and there would have to be a way to ensure every aspect of each transaction was appropriately handled.

“For we provide end-to-end services so that folks can get access to reservable and non-reservable lands across the country," Evans said. "A big piece of that is the website, but it’s not the only piece. We provide services to field users to check customers in. We have a large amount of call center employees that service the account. And we provide anything from support on technology and satellite services to all the hosting and data management done on the back-end of the system — including financial pieces as well.”

In 2013, total revenue generated through transactions fees on from camping added up to more than $67.2 million, more than $8.6 million was generated from its associated call center, and roughly $15.2 million came from on-site booking — processed by ACTIVE’s software. This totals more than $91 million in annual gross revenues, according to Federal Business Opportunities numbers. Due to procurement privacy, the USDA did not release the percentage of ACTIVE’s $14.5 million in revenue that stems from Forest Service commissions. However, Evans said the perceived value of such commissions — the amounts varying depending on location, facility type and usage — is found wanting.

“I think the biggest misconception is that there is some kind of huge revenue stream here for companies, and I’m not sure that there is,” Evans said. “These are typically limited transactions fees that vendors go for in a bid. Governments typically haven’t passed out commissions over and above that to other entities.”

In contrast to ACTIVE’s argument, Access Land and its industry notables such as the Sierra Club, REI and, in the civic tech arena, the open data advocate Code for America, stand by the opinion that a booking API is easily feasible and ensures equal opportunity in addition to market growth. Hearing pleas from both sides of the issue, the White House has sent top talent from the U.S. Digital Services, a recently formed tech consulting group, and 18F, a federal team of software developers, to proffer feedback and advice as USDA’s procurement panel revises the RFP for a second release and comment period sometime in January.

Reaching out to stakeholders, USDA hosted an industry event for feedback on Nov. 20. National Park Service Program Manager Rick DeLappe, the event's coordinator, said it was unlike any RFP industry day he’d attended before due to the diversity of opinion. Half the audience represented larger companies considering bidding on the contract, while the other half included entrepreneurs, like Ravasio, interested in building a service or utilizing the data.

“It was really great because there were some really different perspectives and we allowed an open question-and-answer period after each [stakeholder presented an opinion],” DeLappe said.

The big question, “Will there be a booking API?” was posed to DeLappe, who also coordinates the RFP’s procurement panel. DeLappe said that while he promised an API to publish campsite availability — a current project set to launch in the spring — he could not comment on a booking API until after the USDA had reviewed its submitted feedback, a process set to finish around the end of December.

“My answer right now is, honestly, we don’t know,” he said.

Notwithstanding the USDA’s pending review, DeLappe openly discussed thought processes behind the RFP. To avoid stifling solutions and limiting applicants, the USDA panel crafted requirements within a performance based framework —  a way to incentivize a proposal with effective solutions.

“The reason you didn’t see a strong requirement that said, ‘You must provide an API that does X, Y, Z,’ is because we assume, in a performance-based environment, that the strongest applicants would come back with the best technology. Our understanding today is that that technology is an API. Do we know an API will be the best technology in the next five to seven years? We don’t.” DeLappe said. “But that’s why we avoid telling you to, for example, ‘Paint the car blue.’ The car just needs to be painted, and [applicants] can come back with the best proposal in how to accomplish that.”

Large tech firms and vendors who attended the event included industry influencers like IBM, Oracle, Accenture, Verizon and Accela — a company deeply invested in civic tech and open data. Evans confirmed that ACTIVE, also represented at the event, would definitely be interested in the contract even if the USDA confirmed third-parties would have access to revenues.

“I feel like we’ve been around as the largest player because we’ve evolved as we’ve seen things change in the industry,” Evans said. "There are things we’ve pushed the industry forward on and there have been things … we’ve had to change.”

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