Open Data for the Outdoors

Or, how the Government can support the outdoor industry and inspire the next generation of conservationists by harnessing the power of open data.


To those who will determine the final contract for Recreation.gov:

Ahead of you lies the decision of how to draft the final RFP for Recreation.gov. This contract will determine how Americans access their public lands for the next decade. I am in many parallel conversations with other park agencies and they are all waiting to see what you decide.

Last week I visited Harvard’s Kennedy School with some of the thought leaders who are redefining the interface between government and technology, including Todd Park, White House Technology Advisor and former US CTO; DJ Patil, U.S. Chief Data Scientist and Deputy CTO; Aneesh Chopra, former US CTO; and Nick Sinai, former Deputy US CTO.

The event helped evolve my thinking on Recreation.gov and the future of government technology. Some of the core themes were Tim O’Reilly’s concept of government as a platform and the wholesale and retail model of government services.

The Recreation.gov RFP includes both wholesale and retail functionality. Wholesale is foundational infrastructure: databases, hosting, point-of-sale, and APIs. Retail is the public facing Recreation.gov website, mobile application and potential third party applications.

To unlock the full potential of open data, the contract must encourage entrepreneurs to build third party “retail” applications. This will harness the creativity of the private sector to reach the next generation of conservationists and inspire more Americans to connect with their public lands. “Success” can be measured by the number of third party applications that are built on the Recreation.gov platform, and the impact of these applications.

Wholesale and retail provides a framework for how the government should structure the business model for the Contractor and third parties. When a customer books a campsite using a third party app, a set portion of their booking fee goes the Contractor for the infrastructure that supports this transaction (wholesale), and the other part of the fee goes to the third party application (retail). When a customer books through the official Recreation.gov website or mobile application, the Contractor receives the entire user fee.

It is worth noting that in the ideal model, these two functions of Recreation.gov would have been procured separately — contracting one company to build the “wholesale” infrastructure, and another to build the creative “retail” consumer applications. But by requiring a clear and fair commission incentive for third parties, most of the benefits can still be realized.

The government can insure the quality of the “wholesale” infrastructure by requiring that the Contractor build the official Recreation.gov website and mobile app using only the same “wholesale” infrastructure offered to third parties. This is known as “dogfooding,” when a company uses its own products or services that are designed for external use as well. It is considered best practice in technology companies.

The progress made to date by opening the real-time availability data API, developing an API for RIDB, and ensuring that all data in Recreation.gov is accessible by default are crucial first steps, which should be congratulated. The last step to unlocking the benefits of open data is to align incentives for third parties. A clear commission structure will encourage them to build applications that should:

  1. Increase visitation. The travel industry has proven that competition in distribution will grow sales — especially with under-used inventory, such as lesser known parks and dates in the shoulder season. This will increase revenue for both the Government and local economies, while boosting the outdoor industry as a whole.
  2. Reach new and diverse demographics. With a diverse range of third party companies competing to reach outdoor customers, we can expect new and diverse demographics to be reached in meaningful ways.
  3. Help define the model for the next-generation of Public-Private Partnerships (PPP). Historical models of PPP fell short and failed to take full opportunity of the creativity of the private sector. Recreation.gov is a clear opportunity to design a successful PPP model that works and will inspire other agencies to do the same.
  4. Inspire the next generation of public land supporters and conservationists. Young entrepreneurs will build applications that will make public land relevant and accessible to their peers using the latest technologies.

Thank you for all your hard work to connect the public with their land. I’m excited for the future Recreation.gov and the potential it holds for the future of our public lands.

Respectfully,

Alyssa Ravasio

Founder & CEO, Hipcamp

Chairperson, Access Land

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