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Recreation.gov a Test Case for Government Tech

BY Miranda Neubauer | Monday, November 3 2014

A request for proposals under consideration for a new revamping of recreation.gov, the government's portal for outdoor trip planning, could be an opportunity to apply the innovative vision of 18F, the new digital services team within the General Services Administration, established in the spring, and of the new U.S. Digital Service within the Office of Management and Budget, civic technologists say.

While the RFP as it stands illustrates many of the well-known problems that have been typical of the established procurement process, civic advocates say that is precisely a reason why there is still time for the initiatives' involvement to make a difference.

"This is the first RFP that I've seen since the USDS was created and I think it's a test to see how effective this new paradigm can be at the outset," said Alan Williams, a designer at Code For America. "I think that this is maybe the first opportunity for this new way of building and buying software to really create a great service."

Williams has been part of a collection of stakeholders who have been raising awareness about the issues they see with the RFP that also includes consumer oriented technology companies such as HipCamp, AllTrails and others.

Williams was the lead organizer of an OpenTrails open data standard with a focus on public lands and trail networks.

The "real need" of the community, which includes the private and the non-profit sector, Williams said, is to have access to data in a clear and consistent format that allows for the development of third-party applications.

The RFP proposal's reliance on an "eleven year sole source contract," Williams said, was the first reason it caught the attention of him and others who have been enthusiastic about the Digital Services Playbook and the TechFAR Handbook, two U.S.D.S. documents that outline best practices for government digital services and how to implement them when working with contractors. "That raised a flag right then and there," he said. "When we looked further into it we saw that an API is really not central to this RFP. Open data is a second-class citizen in the RFP -- there is not a clear commitment to open data that would allow an ecosystem of services and products and tools for citizens and park and nature lovers to use."

In response to a request for comment, the Department of Agriculture and the Forest Service referred to an extension of the comment period for the RFP proposal, originally scheduled to end October 22, to November 7, and an industry day in Colorado scheduled for November 13. Members from the technology community had asked for a 30 day extension.

"We really want the Department of Agriculture to consider an open API as a core of the recreation.gov in the future," Williams said. He said similar past and future problems could be avoided if agencies made more of an effort to reach out to the civic technology community in addition to industry representatives.

"Unfortunately what we've seen is that the departments that have adopted to this new way of thinking have only done so after a crisis --- the outdoor community has an opportunity to avoid a crisis," Williams said, not only referring to Healthcare.gov. "There's important work underway with Veterans Affairs and Immigration Services..., but those are all examples where we have gotten to a crisis point before they've made the change."

In an e-mail, Hillary Hartley, deputy executive director at 18F, wrote that while 18F could not comment on the RFP, "we're very excited to see it hit the streets."

In a follow-up e-mail, Williams wrote that he he was hopeful about the possibility of 18F's involvement. "I'm optimistic that the Department of Agriculture will get the guidance they need to produce a draft RFP that realizes the potential for an open data, API-centric Recreation.gov," he wrote. " Leading thinkers on government APIs like Kin Lane are investing their time and energy into helping produce detailed recommendations. I have no doubt that folks at USDS and 18F are trying to assist USDA. What I don't know is whether the USDA is able to receive this help constructively. The extension of the comment period and the 'Industry Day' scheduled for November 13 do make me optimistic."

Alyssa Ravasio, founder of HipCamp, described the community's priorities in a post on Medium. "

"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," she recalled.

"While reading this ninety-three page contract, it is obvious that the authors are driven by improving the public’s access their parks. They really want to make good things happen, requiring the contractor to build software that is 'intuitive, streamlined, powerful' and to 'work continuously to ensure the User Interface (website) remains fresh,' she goes on to write, noting that the RFP does call for third party sales with commercial travel and recreation planning companies. "The show-stopping problem is that this draft leaves it up to the contractor to determine if this type of API is feasible—meaning the contractor who can profit from keeping this data and inventory to themselves has the authority to do so. This is a clear conflict of interest and must be changed. The government needs to take a stand and require third party sales to be a core part of this system, even if the potential contractors don’t like it."