Last summer, we reported on the abysmal online booking system that would-be campers had to navigate to reserve campsites on most federal lands. Turned out it wasn’t the government—the people who brought you the DMV and the IRS—that was the root of the dysfunction, but rather the old private contractors that refused to share data on campsite availability with the public. Why and how that information got locked up is a story of crony capitalism and gray bureaucracy, but after four and a half years of hard fought advocacy work to little fanfare, the non-profit Access Land and the companies and people behind the “open data for open lands” movement have scored a major victory.
On Monday, February 25, the online and app-based campsite booking service Hipcamp, whose founder and CEO Alyssa Ravasio was the driving force behind Access Land, announced that its third-party platform is now the first to feature both public and private campsite availability in real time. The upshot: As with countless other non-governmental sites that rely on open data to make your life easier, you won’t have to jump through as many hoops to find campsites that work for you.
The freeing of the data happened because the government, through the administrators at recreation.gov, and their new primary contractor, Booz Allen Hamilton, agreed to share availability for roughly 100,000 federal campsites, and, unlike the prior contractor, actually followed through on the promise. Thus far, say recreation.gov officials, a half dozen or more third-party vendors have signed agreements to tap into the data.
That's welcome news to Hipcamp’s Ravasio. “Campers have known for a long time that it’s too hard to find and book a campsite,” she says. “Today, I woke up and said we’re starting to solve not just a part of the problem, but the whole problem. I can’t wait for the day when other entrepreneurs begin building a Spanish language app. That’s possible now. The entire idea of the internet is to make it easier to meet people where they are. Now it’s finally happening for campers.”
All this comes just months after Booz Allen Hamilton and the federal government updated recreation.gov, the main clearing house for camping on most federally managed lands. If you’ve logged on recently, you’ll know what we’re talking about. Recreation.gov officials admit that there were a few hiccups at first, but from our experience, the site finally functions like a for-profit booking platform—think Hotels.com or Cheapoair.com. And that makes sense because, although it looks like a pure governmental entity, recreation.gov is a profit-driven enterprise for both the contractor and our federal coffers. Think of it as a revenue source with altruistic goals. “It’s all about making these public lands and waters more accessible,” says the Forest Service’s Janelle Smith, public affairs specialist for recreation.gov. “If it’s easier on a site—whether that’s recreation.gov or a third party—that’s good for everybody.”
The work for Access Land is not done yet, however. It will be a little longer before you’ll be able to actually book federal campsites via Hipcamp and other third-party sites “in-app.” (There’s still information security to flesh out.) Meanwhile, most state park reservation systems still lag behind the feds in freeing our data. But voicing your support for free data should help diversify the campsite reservation business, meaning new user groups will find it easier to recreate outdoors. That’s the ultimate goal of recreation.gov and Access Land. “It will forever change how people will gain access to their public lands,” says Ravasio.