The federal government has released a revised draft contract that will define how we access our public land for the next decade. They are seeking a private contractor to build Recreation.gov, which will provide online access to our nation’s parks, forests, monuments, campsites, cabins, and tours. While great progress has been made, the government needs to take a stand and define the key elements that will create a platform for innovation.
It has been four months since the first draft contract for Recreation.gov was released. This first draft was so concerning that we started AccessLand, an outdoors focused open data coalition that now counts REI, the Sierra Club, Code for America, and over 45 other organizations as its members. Our concerns led to letters from Congress, a twice extended comment period, an industry meeting in Colorado, the addition of technical expertise from US Digital Services to the contracting team, and over three months of rewriting. You can read more about all this work here, all of which has led to Recreation.gov contract, Draft 2.0.
Draft 2.0 represents huge progress. Tons of work and critical thinking went into this rewrite, and it shows. The government team behind these changes are not acknowledged for their efforts often enough, and they definitely deserve praise for their hard work here.
The biggest improvements are (1) access to real-time availability data and (2) the ability for third party applications to make bookings. In the old draft, real-time availability data was explicitly inaccessible, but Draft 2.0 goes so far as to state that:
“In general, all of the information available to users of Recreation.gov itself shall be made available to third parties via the sharing service… The Contractor shall ensure the data available via the sharing service represent the most current data available on Recreation.gov…”
This is aligned with Obama’s policies to make government data “open by default” and represents a big step forward for the open data movement. Furthermore, the new draft stipulates that:
“The Contractor shall make it easy for a user of a third party application or website that has chosen to integrate with Recreation.gov to search for inventory and real time availability, and complete a reservation.”
This is a huge improvement from the old draft which permitted the contractor to determine if third party sales were even “feasible.” Furthermore, all this functionality is required at go live, which is excellent. Despite all these improvements, Draft 2.0 still falls short of what is needed to create a Recreation.gov that will serve the best interest of the public.
Problem #1 — Technology
There’s a huge problem with how this draft defines third parties’ ability to complete a reservation: while it suggests “a transactional API that allows third parties to construct their own interface,” it also states that linking to Recreation.gov is sufficient.
If you have used popular mobile applications like Hotwire, TripAdvisor, and Orbitz, you know what a great experience it is to complete your reservation from within the application. Since they have your credit card on file, payment is a snap, and the consistent design makes the whole process very simple. But imagine if these apps had to send you back to websites like Hilton.com or Marriot.com. The experience would be confusing and frustrating. You’d be far less likely to book.
As drafted, this contract leaves the door open for a future where all bookings still must take place on the Recreation.gov website. This would cripple entrepreneurs’ ability to build creative applications and severely limit future innovation.
President Obama has said that he wants federal agencies 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.”
For Recreation.gov to function as an “effective platform,” it must facilitate transactions from within third party applications. The government needs to explicitly state this to insure they’re requiring the technology that will create the best outcome for the public.
Let’s be honest about how companies work. It’s their job to maximize profits, in fact public companies have a fiduciary duty to do so. Therefore, we should rationally expect the winning contractor to do what is required in the contract and no more. The winning contractor’s customer will be the government, not the public. It is not their job to be a fair actor, or offer services that are in the public’s best interest. This is not because these contractors are bad people. In fact, I know many of them — and they’re great people, many with a real passion for the outdoors. But that doesn’t mean we should expect them to serve the public. In general, if something is not required by the contract we should not expect them do it.
This contract is the government’s one chance to get it right for the next decade. This is the moment.
Which brings us to the biggest problem in the current draft: it allows the contractor to determine what a fair revenue share for third parties is.
Without this guarantee, the government is creating a situation where third party companies would have to negotiate terms with an effective monopoly; an untenable position.
The government needs to explicitly state what third parties can expect in terms of a minimum revenue share. Without this explicit guarantee, there will be no market confidence for third parties, no incentive to build and innovate, no competitive forces to make the winning contractor improve their product over time, no expansion of the pie, and no creative applications inspiring the next generation of conservationists. In fact, without an explicit guaranteed revenue share, we shouldn’t expect anyone to build on this platform at all.
And — we have historical data to prove this is true.
The current incumbent of this the contract, the Active Network, has offered a camping sales affiliate program for years. Their definition of a fair commission? Fifty cents for each customer who creates a new account and also complete a reservation. This means the customer must be making the first camping booking of their life, and then they come back to book their next camping trip, the third party gets nothing.
I am yet to find a single company that has adopted Active’s camping affiliate program.
Again, this is not because Active is bad or greedy—it’s because they’re not required to provide a fair revenue share, so why would they? Their job is to fulfill the contract they signed with the Forest Service — not to create the best outcome for public.
For the government to create the best outcome for the public, they must harness the creativity of the private sector. To do this, they must clearly state guidelines for how third parties are going to be financially rewarded.
A fair revenue share is the key to incentivizing entrepreneurs to build innovative applications that help connect Americans with their land. It is the key to unlocking all the potential that open data and internet technologies have to offer the park service and the American people.
In this draft, the government asks bidders to follow “travel and hospitality industry best practices.” In the travel industry, the standard commission for an agency booking is 10% of the total transaction.
In our recent whitepaper, we suggested a 70/30 commission split where the winning contractor would still earn partial commission even when the booking came from a third party. We’ve received feedback from bidders that our suggested split is reasonable, which is very encouraging.
But it’s impossible to say what will happen once bids are in. To insure a future Recreation.gov that serves the best interest of the public, the government needs to take a stand and define what is a fair commission for a third party. That’s their job.
How You Can Help
Despite the excellent progress with this new draft, these two problems must be fixed in the final contract.
By adding explicit requirements for revenue share and modern technology that can facilitate bookings withing third party applications, Recreation.gov will become a platform upon which entrepreneurs can build innovative applications that will reach new, diverse audiences and inspire the next generation of conservationists.
It is impossible to imagine all the creativity this will unlock… how about a website that helps people discover their parks in Spanish? Or an app that helps you book the best last minute camping nearby? Or one that gamifies camping with badges and awards? The possibilities are truly endless.
This contract will not only define the next decade of access to our federal park system, it will also set the tone for all future state park systems which will come up for contract renewal.
Therefore, this contract represents a critical inflection point in how Americans will access their land.
If you want the future Recreation.gov to be a platform upon which entrepreneurs can build and see a proliferation of creative park-focused applications, it’s important that you let the government know.
Comments are being accepted by Jason King at firstname.lastname@example.org until 5pm ET on February 17.
As has been demonstrated by this latest draft, our opinion matters — and the government is listening.
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. Hipcamp certainly stands to benefit from opening up this system, but no more than our many competitors (both present and future) do.
Open Data for Open Lands — Part I
AccessLand, the quickly growing list of supporters.