An Expedia for national parks? Maybe not, under latest draft RFP

Recreation.gov allows travelers to book a campsite at, say, Grand Canyon National Park and other federally owned public lands. (Moyan Brenn/Flickr)

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Campers who want to book a spot in Grand Canyon National Park or on various other federally owned public lands likely must log on to Recreation.gov to make the reservation online.

Recreation.gov is a major repository of data, carrying information on 90,000 reservable sites and hosting about 116,000 records. But a coalition of outdoorsy groups said a solicitation the government is putting together for a new Recreation.gov contractor doesn’t do enough to promote the open use of that data.

Released last week, the new draft request for proposals would, in part, require the contract winner to let third parties access and display federal recreation information, and suggests ways to collaborate with other companies to make the information available on multiple channels.

The draft RFP, however, stops short of requiring an application programming interface, or API, which could allow people to build third-party sites and applications that book reservations, much like Expedia does with hotel rooms.

“API is the technology for sharing data today, but requiring this technology over the life of a ten-year contract would jeopardize the use of new and innovative approaches for data sharing in the next decade,” Rick DeLappe, Recreation One-Stop program manager at the National Park Service, said in a release accompanying the posting in FedBizOps.

Alyssa Ravasio, founder and CEO of the camping booking website Hipcamp, said the new contract needed to require the use of a technology that lets people complete transactions from outside applications. An API, she said, was the best option.

“I’m a programmer, and I can’t imagine what kind of technology, other than an API, could possibly work here,” she told FedScoop.

Under the current RFP, a vendor could say that linking out would be enough to satisfy the contract’s terms, she argued. Ravasio also said the contract should set up guidelines governing revenue sharing for the bookings. According to the Forest Service, the contract would require the vendor to develop strategies for collaborating with third parties on commission rate, allowing the market to determine what is mutually beneficial.

Ravasio’s company is part of Access Land, a coalition that includes Code for America, the Sierra Club and REI, and that is pushing for more open data within Recreation.gov. Late last year, Access Land cried foul when the Forest Service posted an earlier draft request for proposals that the group said fell short on promoting open data.

Since then, the Forest Service — which works with a number of federal public landowners like the National Park Service and the Bureau of Land Management to maintain Recreation.gov — has been trying to assuage concerns. Before the most recent draft, the government held an industry day and extended the comment period on the previous draft. According to a press release, it also worked with the federal government’s digital shops — the U.S. Digital Service and the General Service Administration’s 18F.

The comment period for the latest draft closes next week.

Opening up the data would promote creativity, Ravasio said. She pointed to the IRS’ e-file system, which allowed TurboTax to flourish. Now, TurboTax allows users to file their taxes — in Spanish.

“It’s really hard for us to even imagine all the creativity this will unlock,” she said.

Active Outdoors, the current holder of the Recreation.gov contract, did not provide a comment to Ravasio’s criticisms of the contract by publication time.

The Obama administration has placed a priority on open data. Nearly two years ago, the president signed an executive order requiring that that “data generated by the government be made available in open, machine-readable formats.” Ravasio said her platform would align with the executive order.

“Overall, this draft represents huge progress,” Ravasio said. But she said critical elements need to be clarified.

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data analytics, Department of Agriculture (USDA), Department of the Interior, Departments, open data, Tech
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