For fun and profit: Data entrepreneurs size up Recreation.gov RFP

Open-data advocates want to see developers build booking websites and apps to compete with the longtime vendor at Recreation.gov.

Shutterstock image: El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, captured by Steve Buckley.

A U.S. Forest Service request for proposals that would require the release of data gathered by the Recreation.gov website is being revised to satisfy criticisms from open-data advocates. But data entrepreneurs are still protesting that potential restrictions in the RFP are downright anti-free market.

Recreation.gov is the booking portal for reservations at 90,000 sites on federal lands, including national parks and forests, wildlife refuges, waterways, and recreation areas.

For almost 10 years, the contractor that manages the site -- Active Outdoors, a division of the Dallas-based Active Network -- has kept a tight hold on all the reservation data collected by its ReserveAmerica system while operating what amounts to a monopoly on federal recreation site booking.

That's an untenable position in this era of open federal data, argue advocates who want to see booking websites and apps built to compete with the longtime vendor. USFS revised an earlier version of the RFP to address those concerns.

But even if the data is made available, the current version of the RFP would allow Active Outdoors or its successor to continue the practice of not paying commissions to businesses that direct bookings and reservations to Recreation.gov.

Harnessing creativity

When the Forest Service released the first version of the RFP on Oct. 8, it sparked a revolt led by Alyssa Ravasio and Eric Bach, co-founders of Hipcamp, a website that connects people with campsites.

Big-name collaborators -- including Code for America, the Sierra Club and REI -- joined Hipcamp to form Access Land and present a unified effort by the recreation industry and environmental groups to change the way the federal government handles park reservations.

The group produced a white paper demanding that:

* Third parties have access to the data that powers the Recreation.gov website via an application programming interface, in real time.

* The government mandate that third parties facilitate transactions via an API.

* The government set a minimum commission that the winning contractor pays to third parties on reservation fees they facilitate.

In response, USFS agreed to extend the comment period and participate in an industry day with about six-dozen open-data groups and recreation industry representatives in Golden, Colo., in November. Soon after, USFS agreed to revise the RFP and release a new version in January 2015, followed by a comment period. USFS plans to choose a vendor by July 2015.

"There's an ecosystem that's going to bloom from this," Ravasio said. "People are going to build software that will connect them to the land."

And, not incidentally, the data is a good way to "harness the creativity of the private sector," she added.

Rick DeLappe, Recreation One-Stop program manager at the National Park Service, said information gathered during the industry day and from follow-up comments will be taken into consideration when revising the RFP.

Recreation.gov is managed by the Recreation Management Committee, an interagency group that includes members from USFS, Army Corps of Engineers, National Park Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Reclamation, and the National Archives and Records Administration. USFS manages the contract on behalf of the committee.

DeLappe also said in a written statement that it has been the intent all along that the next contractor would include a solution that adheres to the Obama administration's 2013 Open Data Policy, despite the uncertainty created by the original draft of the RFP.

"We were purposefully vague about how these services would be delivered to allow the prospective contractor to present a solution that meets the needs of today's open-data environment through the use of [APIs] and with enough flexibility to keep pace with advancement in technology and the endless possibilities about how the public will consume information in the next decade," DeLappe said.

'Take a stand'

Leaving the open-data solution to the next vendor is not the soundest way to proceed, according to members of the open-data community.

"Asking bidders to propose solutions to this problem in hopes of maximizing creativity and innovation...delegates too much responsibility to the bidders," the Access Land white paper states. "The stakes are too high and the risk is too great. The government needs to take a stand and define the base-level requirements for an open-data approach."

And the government needs to model its response on the private sector when it comes to commissions, the group said.

For example, hotels and airlines pay a fee when people use sites such as Expedia or Travelocity to book rooms and flights. Allowing commissions for Recreation.gov reservations would encourage the winning contractor to improve its website and services because it would be competing with other booking sites, Ravasio said.

"This is the only way to make it so that this contractor, who builds and manages Recreation.gov, is facing competitive market forces," she added.

Ravasio said her company sends thousands of bookings per month to Recreation.gov and would receive a pittance if it participated in Active Outdoors' current incentive program. "The revenue upside here is so small that it is not worth the cost of our engineering time...to integrate into their program," she said.

Slicing up the pie

Gary Evans, vice president and general manager of Active Outdoors, takes issue with the notion that Recreation.gov is comparable to Expedia or Travelocity, saying the scale of the operations is not in the same ballpark.

Expedia might get a 10 percent commission on a $300-a-night hotel room, a $500 flight or a weeklong car rental -- enough business for multiple parties to be well served, Evans said. But fees for campsites at national parks are considerably lower, and there are fewer or no ancillary products.

"If we have all these APIs out there, how does that money get carved up?" Evans asked. "There's not a lot of money to get carved up."

Releasing APIs for third-party sites would be an additional cost to the hosting company, and the vendor would also have to review security and ensure that government policies for the data are being followed.

And then there is the practical consideration of having multiple entry points for a reservation system in real time. A campsite at Yosemite National Park might sell out in minutes. Evans said he doubted whether information on availability would be as reliable and accurate if multiple websites were managing reservations.

And, Evans pointed out, fees for campsites would probably have to be raised if commissions are made mandatory.

"Our goal is to keep costs at a minimum to consumers, and having a flat, minimum or mandatory commission could impact that," Evans said.

However, he said, a final version of the RFP that includes a mandatory minimum commission would not necessarily mean Active Outdoors would not bid on the new Recreation.gov contract.

And that might be the most revealing data of all.

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