The federal government has released a draft contract that will define how we access our public lands for the next decade. They are seeking a private contractor to build software that will provide online access to our nation’s parks, forests, monuments, campsites, cabins, and tours.

< the problem + the context >

This would be a huge step backwards from all of the Obama administration’s great work encouraging federal agencies to use open data to build platforms. In the words of President Obama, he wants to “make sure that we’re giving entrepreneurs the ability, if we build an effective platform, to essentially develop apps that work off this new information.”

The key to making open data accessible is an API, which allows different applications to share data. The government now offers federal agencies an API management service called API.Data.Gov. The first principle of our National Data Policy is “openness,” and the Digital Services Playbook tells agencies to “default to open.”

< examples of government platforms >

The IRS created e-file, which has been called “the blueprint for public-private partnerships.” The e-file platform enabled and inspired services like TurboTax and TaxAct to build easy ways for citizens to file their taxes online. Market forces of competition incentivize these companies to constantly improve their product, resulting in better experiences for the taxpayers and less paperwork for the government.

< the solution for recreation.gov >

This would allow an ecosystem bloom, inspiring multiple services to compete in helping people get outside. The benefits of getting more people outside include increased revenue for the government, a boost in business for the outdoor industry, and perhaps most importantly, a larger population connecting with nature and developing a passion for ensuring its protection and preservation for future generations.

There are two core requirements missing in this draft contract that are needed to unlock all this potential.

1. API First

The new Recreation.gov website should use this API, as should the general public and licensed third parties (all with different access levels). Starting with an API as the core and using it for both internal and external purposes is a software industry best practice known as “eating your own dog food,” and has a tremendously positive impact on security, sustainability, and flexibility of the software.

As drafted now, the contract leaves it up to the contractor to determine if this type of API is feasible, meaning the contractor who can profit from keeping this data to themselves has the authority to do so. This is a clear conflict of interest and must be changed.

2. Align Incentives

This is the only way to incentivize the contractor to offer an outstanding service. If they are given a monopoly, they will do the bare minimum and nothing more. By adding competition for transactional revenue, the contractor will be subject to market forces and will be naturally driven to improve their product and services.

3. Take a Stand

In fact, this draft even mentions “third party sales…with commercial travel and recreation planning companies (such as Travelocity, Expedia, etc.)” — the exact idea I’m presenting here.

The show-stopping problem is that this draft leaves it up to the contractor to determine if this type of API is feasible — meaning the contractor who can profit from keeping this data and inventory to themselves has the authority to do so.

This is a clear conflict of interest and must be changed. The government needs to take a stand and require third party sales to be a core part of this system, even if the potential contractors don’t like it.

< the dream & its impact >

This may sound overly optimistic, but when you align incentives and allow open market forces to work, the “invisible hand” has a way of serving its own. For example, TurboTax is fully available in Spanish, and that’s not because they’re trying to reach “underserved” communities, it’s because it makes sense to do so financially. Read the entire ninety-three page Recreation.gov contract draft — nowhere does it mention Spanish, despite the fact that Latinos represents 17% of our population and is expected to reach 31% by 2060. Market forces will accomplish what government cannot — developing all the different ways the public needs to be reached.

If we break open this monopoly and let an ecosystem bloom, we allow the creativity and innovation of the American people to benefit our public lands. We will inspire a new generation to explore the outdoors and commit to protecting it for future generations.

< how you can help >

Submit your comments to jasonmking@fs.fed.us no later than November 30.

< author’s disclaimer >

< more resources >

AccessLand Whitepaper.

AccessLand, quickly growing list of supporters.

Great review of the RFP by former Presidential Innovation Fellow and API evangelist Kin Lane.

Modernized E-File as a “Blueprint for Public Private Partnerships”

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