Open Data Could Improve Access to the Great Outdoors


Would you believe the same is true of the U.S. government's camping information? It is.

Would you believe the same is true of the U.S. government’s camping information? It is.

Our Coalition focuses on pursuing open data in two key areas of the U.S. government’s information: federal spending and financial regulation. We think transforming these two areas from disconnected documents into open data will create huge benefits for government and society.

Not everybody agrees that government information is most valuable when it’s published online as machine-readable data. In both our key areas, supporters of data standardization and publication have had to overcome entrenchedopposition.

On October 8, the United States Forest Service posted a draft Request for Proposal (RFP) for “Recreation One Stop Support Services (R1S).” The draft RFP seeks a private contractor to build software for a new reservation system covering campsites, cabins, and tours at all federal parks. The contract will span up to 11 years, over $1 billion in revenue, and critically define how our nation will access public lands for years to come.

As written, the draft RFP places a single contractor in charge of managing campsite availability and reservation information rather than releasing all that information as open data.
If campsite availability and reservations were published as open data, entrepreneurs could build competing platforms to help campers make reservations and advocates could track campsite use. These are the types of innovations envisioned in President Obama’s May 2013 Open Data Policy, which pushes all agencies to “default to open.”
But the Forest Service’s draft RFP does the opposite. In fact, it would remove data that is currently accessible from the public view altogether.

  • The goal of this contract is a reservation system that will provide the best access to our nation’s parks and public lands.
  • The problem is that the winning contractor will be able build a website that meets minimum requirements without opening up campsite availability and reservation data. Because the draft RFP gives authority to the contractor to keep all these important data sets private, competition will not exist.

This month the Data Transparency Coalition spoke with Alyssa Ravasio, the founder of Hipcamp. Hipcamp has created comprehensive search engine for campgrounds across government agencies by using publically available government data. Alyssa is one of the entrepreneurs who’d eagerly build new ways for Americans to interact with government campsite data—if that data were open.
Chief among Alyssa’s concerns about the Forest Service’s draft RFP is the importance of including an Application Programming Interface (API). At a basic level, APIs allow applications talk to each other. Yelp uses Google Map’s API to show you where restaurants are located and TurboTax uses an API provided by the IRS to give you an easier way to file your taxes. Failing to make an API a primary requirement of this contract will greatly restrict entrepreneurs’ ability to develop innovative applications on top of the open data.

Members of Congress who agree that this draft RFP is not a 21st century approach to conservation and outdoor recreation sent a letter requesting an extension for the public comment period.

To its credit, the Forest Service has responded to the concerns from the open data industry and from Congress. The RFP comment period has been extended an additional two weeks until November 7—and the Forest Service has announced it’ll host an in-person meeting on November 13th to collect additional views. The Forest Service has a chance to amend its RFP to transform campsite information into open data. If it doesn’t, Congress and the White House should step in.