Seeking Happy Campers, Government Offers Revamped Travel Portal

Data : 10/10/2019 @ 18:49
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Seeking Happy Campers, Government Offers Revamped Travel Portal

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By Agam Shah 

The U.S. government has made it easier to book a camping trip by moving a travel portal to the cloud, a tech revamp that makes the website more reliable and gives it the flexibility to add services.

Since its move to the cloud a year ago, Recreation.gov has drawn more visitors to less-famous attractions and has saved paperwork -- and money -- for individual parks that can now be booked online.

The website can be used for booking public campsites, getting park permits and reserving activities or tour tickets. It has access to more than 3,500 locations, including national parks, recreation areas and historic sites such as the Washington Monument.

To help meet growing online demand, the Recreation.gov revamp tapped container technology, which companies use to stay agile in an increasingly software-defined world. Complex applications are broken into small pieces of code defining a certain service, placed into software shells, and distributed across devices. Using containers to cordon off services like booking can cut development costs, allow for personalization and help the reservation system run faster.

The portal, which runs on Amazon.com Inc.'s Amazon Web Services cloud service, offers more than 45 services, including camping inventory, tour tickets, entry passes and hunting permits. Over the past year, the site has generated about $150 million in revenue for the government.

Among other improvements, the new system lets campers use a mobile app to reserve campsites, something that wasn't possible earlier. People who book using the portal can be alerted in real time about reservation cancellations due to forest fires, floods or government shutdowns.

The government hired contractor Booz Allen Hamilton Inc. to handle the Recreation.gov revamp. The 10-year, $182 million contract began in 2017.

The effort represents a small component of the government's quest to modernize its information technology, in part by incorporating tools and practices found in the commercial sector.

Federal agencies are moving aging technology into the cloud from on-premises data centers to automate processes and cut costs, said Arun Chandrasekaran, distinguished vice president and analyst at research and advisory firm Gartner Inc.

"I think of [the Recreation.gov revamp] as a steppingstone for them to really modernize their environment, to make it more cloud friendly, and at the same time, get some cost savings out of the underlying infrastructure," Mr. Chandrasekaran said.

Booking campsites can be extremely competitive, especially at locations such as Yosemite National Park in central California, where the most popular spots are made available up to five months earlier. They can sell out in a matter of minutes.

"The public nowadays more than ever wants to know they have a spot when they get there. When I was young, we would just drive up and find a campsite, no big deal," said 56-year-old Rick DeLappe, program manager for Recreation.gov at the National Park Service.

How the system helps users:

-- The service to book campsites is prioritized to handle extra traffic during, say, the late winter and early spring, when summertime reservations for Yosemite campsites become available.

-- A technology that manages the containers makes sure the booking system meets demand so campers don't hit busy servers.

-- The containers used for the booking system are replicated in servers across different regions of the country, meaning every would-be camper gets an equal shot at a coveted camping spot.

"When everybody shows up to click the buy button at the same time, there is not a huge snowball effect on the service," said Martin Folkoff, chief technologist in Booz Allen Hamilton's strategic innovation group.

Site development started in mid-2017 and the portal was deployed to Amazon Web Services in October 2018. This is the first time the portal was built for the cloud, which provides the foundation to cater to new interfaces like mobile, Mr. DeLappe said.

Thanks to the technology refresh, Recreation.gov has been able to release a constant stream of updates.

More than 100 sites have been added since February, among them Indiana Dunes National Park along the shores of Lake Michigan. Campsite reservations have increased about 30% from last year's figures, said Will Healy, vice president at Booz Allen Hamilton.

For Olympic National Park near Seattle, the revamp cut costs. The park, which was added to Recreation.gov this year, projects it will save about 5,000 staff hours and up to $150,000 a year.

Write to Agam Shah at agam.shah@wsj.com

 

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

October 10, 2019 17:34 ET (21:34 GMT)

Copyright (c) 2019 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
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