Open data for open lands should be a platform, not a silo.

President Obama’s well-publicized national open data policy (pdf) makes it clear that government data is a valuable public resource for which the government should be making efforts to maximize access and use. This policy was based on lessons from previous government open data success stories, such as weather data and GPS, which form the basis for countless commercial services that we take for granted today and that deliver enormous value to society. (You can see an impressive list of companies reliant on open government data via GovLab’s Open Data 500 project.)

Based on this open data policy, I’ve been encouraging entrepreneurs to invest their time and ingenuity to explore entrepreneurial opportunities based on government data. I’ve even invested (through O’Reilly AlphaTech Ventures) in one such start-up, Hipcamp, which provides user-friendly interfaces to making reservations at national and state parks.

A better system is sorely needed. The current reservation system is clunky and difficult to use. Hipcamp changes all that, making it a breeze to reserve camping spots.

But now this is under threat. Active Network / Reserve America’s 10-year contract is up for renewal, and the Department of the Interior had promised an RFP for a new contract that conformed with the open data mandate. Ideally, that RFP would require an API so that independent companies could provide alternate interfaces, just like travel sites provide booking interfaces for air travel, hotels, and more. That explosion of consumer convenience should be happening for customers of our nation’s parks as well, don’t you think?

Unfortunately, as drafted, the RFP allows the winning contractor to determine whether this type of API is feasible — meaning the entity who benefits most from keeping all the reservations to themselves has the authority to do so. And the draft even removes data that is currently accessible — availability data — from public sharing. So, it’s a huge step backward, and completely out of step with the administration’s open data policy.

The founder of Hipcamp, Alyssa Ravasio, has written up some thoughts on how this RFP could be improved that I want to share with you. And after reading them, I’m hoping you will be moved to send comments asking the Department of the Interior to reconsider their RFP.

Comments on this draft are accepted through Wednesday October 22, so if you agree, please email and let him know that opening up this system is important.

Here is Alyssa’s more detailed write-up.

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 backward 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 products, resulting in better experiences for the taxpayers and less paperwork for the government.

The solution for

Instead of consolidating data and revenue into one contractor building one website, the government should design 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 outdoors. The benefits of getting more people outdoors 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 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 that allow for the automated processing of transactions.

    The new 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 whether 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
  3. 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 (the website they’ve built), then they will earn the commission. But if the sale occurs on a third party site (which 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 naturally be driven to improve their product and services.

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’ve been given a mandate to reach “underserved” communities; it’s because it makes sense to do so financially. Read the entire 93-page contract draft — nowhere does it mention Spanish, despite the fact that the Latino population 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’ll 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 should be a platform, not a silo. Comments are being accepted for a couple more days, until October 22. Please email (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 no later than October 22.

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 an 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.
Alyssa Ravasio, founder of HipCamp

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