You can book an airplane ticket using everything from the JetBlue Web site to Travelocity to Hipmunk. So does it make sense that in 2014, booking a camping spot at Yosemite National Park requires waiting in line on a single U.S. government Web site — an awkward, clunky site that groans under the weight of demand from outdoor enthusiasts on the 15th of each month?
There is a growing chorus of critics calling for the government to allow the private sector to step in and develop other sites for booking space for your RV at Acadia National Park in Maine, a snowmobiling trip in Yellowstone or just checking on the amenities.
Instead, the government may be taking a step backwards, they say, with a proposed 10-year contract to run Recreation.gov that would allow a government contractor to decide whether it wants to sell reservation data for the national parks to third parties — think Kayak, or Hotels.com. The contract being floated could also ban the contractor from sharing the data for free.
Giving the contractor so much control over so much data is a mistake, says Alyssa Ravasio of Hipcamp, a site that aims to connect people with what's unique about each of California's park spaces, from where to chow down on oysters to how much bug spray you'll really need to pack. "What we want to do is what the rest of the travel industry does: create a platform that allows third parties to use their own creativity to reach the audiences they want to reach."
The argument, in short, is that that while the U.S. government might be really good at running our national parks, it should allow those really good at building Web sites and apps to figure out how to bring visitors to them.
Putting all of the U.S.'s recreation spots under one digital roof was once considered an innovation in its own right. Launched under President George W. Bush, the goal was to make it easier for citizens and agencies to manage national resources, no matter whether they fell under the auspices of the National Park Service, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers or one of nearly a dozen other federal agencies. A dozen years later, that's still the guiding ambition: the new Recreation.gov will serve as "the basis of an end-to-end travel planning experience," according to the contract proposal.
But inside and outside the government, the trend has been towards sharing data, not hoarding it. The Free File Alliance — another Bush-era innovation — is, for example, a data-sharing nonprofit partnership between the Internal Revenue Service and tax software companies that encourages companies such as TurboTax and TaxACT to help moderate and low-income people file their taxes online for free, in exchange for the IRS not offering competing e-filing software. When the White House released a playbook for building government technology earlier this year, it emphasized the importance of sharing data.
The contracting materials for the Recreation.gov reboot praise that playbook, in fact. But some say the details of the contract proposal is another example of the Obama White House's talk of data-driven open government not matching its actions.
"This has to do with treating open data as a first-class citizen," said Alan Williams, a designer at Code for America, who is helping to create OpenTrails, a standard for mapping park lands. "This is the old pattern. It's a pattern that's familiar. And it's a pattern that we've seen lead to bad outcomes repeatedly."'
The U.S. Forest Service, which manages Recreation.gov, declined to comment about an ongoing contracting process. But on Friday night, it said that in the face of a great deal of "feedback," it has scheduled an Industry Day at the American Mountaineering Center at Golden, Colo., on Nov. 13 to discuss the digital future of the country's parklands with the broader outdoor community.