The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

For vacationers, an app to guide them to federal destinations

A black bear walks across a meadow near Tower Fall in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming in this file photo taken June 20, 2011. REUTERS/Jim Urquhart/Files
Placeholder while article actions load

With spring and summer vacation season around the corner, the Obama administration is announcing a digital initiative for tourists Friday: An app to guide them to parks, forests, campsites, rivers and other federal property they may not know about.

The Interior Department, working with the Department of Agriculture, will host a “Hackathon” on April 11 and 12 for web developers and other entrepreneurs outside government to design user-friendly, mobile apps for travelers. The idea is to improve access to the vast empire of federally-managed land that’s open to the public, by using a trove of data the agencies has compiled and made public.

“Honestly, the sky is the limit,” said Tim Fullerton, Interior’s director of digital strategy. “We could see a situation where someone develops an app that can help someone near Las Vegas, say, plan a trip to a public land near there.” In that case, the Red Rock Canyon would pop up, along with nearby campsites, picnic areas, visitor centers and maybe even hotels and restaurants if the app pulled data from the local chamber of commerce.

“We’re hoping there are lots of things we haven’t thought of,” Fullerton said.

Making raw information on public lands usable like this is part of the administration’s effort to open data to the public using digital tools. And there’s  a lot of it. National parks are probably the most familiar public lands, but the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management claim thousands of properties as well. The Army Corps of Engineers alone manages about 20,000 campsites on lakes across the country, Fullerton said.

The app idea follows a tourism and travel initiative President Obama announced in Disneyworld three years ago, to make it easier for foreign tourists to come to the United States. The White House issued an executive order setting up procedures to speed tourist visas issued to citizens of Brazil, India and China and forming a committee to study long-term ways to expand international tourism here.

The administration began promoting an existing but underused travel and tourism site,  Since then, use of the site has increased, Interior officials said. But with more Americans using mobile platforms for business and pleasure, it seemed time to create an app.

Web developers will be invited to bring their ideas to Interior Department headquarters in downtown Washington.

“Our approach here is, we don’t have the resources or the technical know-how to develop apps,” Fullerton said. “We’re going to hand the private sector the data and see what they come up with.”


With Brand USA, a campaign to lure foreign tourists — and their money

Obama announces plan to boost international tourism to U.S.