Open Data for Open Lands

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 >

As drafted, this contract places all this inventory and its associated revenue into the hands of one contractor and one website, creating a closed silo and a monopoly.

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 open data platform model of public-private partnerships has already seen huge successes. Public transit agencies opened up their data to popular mapping applications like Google Maps, making public transit accessible and relevant to a wider demographic.

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 >

Instead of consolidating data and revenue into one contractor building one website, the government should design Recreation.gov as an open data platform with a revenue incentive, giving “entrepreneurs the ability…to essentially develop apps that work off this new information.”

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

An API needs to be a primary requirement of this contract, to be completed first. It should include static data (park name, location), real-time data (availability, pricing), and “write” functionalities which allow for the automated processing of transactions.

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

The winning contractor should receive an annual fee per year for the service and support of the system, but then should compete for the transactional revenue. If a sale occurs on Recreation.gov (the website they’ve built), then they will earn the commission. But if the sale occurs on a third party site (who has successfully applied for a license to process transactions), then the third party will earn this commission instead. The government receives the same amount of revenue either way.

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

While reading this ninety-three page contract, it is obvious that the authors are driven by improving the public’s access their parks. They really want to make good things happen, requiring the contractor to build software that is “intuitive, streamlined, powerful” and to “work continuously to ensure the User Interface (website) remains fresh.”

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 >

Imagine a world where popular applications like Waze, Roadtrippers, AllTrails and many more new applications that don’t even exist yet are all competing to get people outside and enjoying our parks. An entrepreneur will develop a website featuring the parks in Spanish. Another will develop a mobile app targeting the rising trend of bike camping, and yet another for motorcycle camping. A middle school student will develop an app where her friends compete to collect badges for all the parks they attend.

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 >

None of this will happen if we don’t first persuade the government that Recreation.gov should be a platform, not a silo. We’ve already succeeded in having the comment period extended until November 30. Please email jasonmking@fs.fed.us (the official recipient for public comments) and let him know that this issue matters to you, and why. They’re on the fence about this issue and our feedback can make all the difference in the world.

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

< author’s disclaimer >

My name is Alyssa and I’m the founder of Hipcamp — we offer a comprehensive search engine for campgrounds across government agencies. One of the main frustrations that led to the founding of Hipcamp was that the information I needed to plan a camping trip was locked in various siloed agency websites. When I go camping, I’m looking for ocean, or mountains — I don’t want to choose between BLM and state parks. Hipcamp certainly stands to benefit from opening up this system, but no more than our many competitors (both present and future) do.

< more resources >

Access to the full draft RFP here.

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”