Questions About the GSA’s Travel Data Challenge

On February 19, 2014 the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) announced whatThe Beat calls a “first of its kind” competition to develop travel data analysis technology. The formal announcement posted by the GSA says:

“In this GSA Travel Data Challenge, the public is asked to develop a technology-driven solution using GSA travel data that allows an agency to identify opportunities to reduce costs.  As such, GSA challenges the public to create a tool using GSA travel data that could be replicated across government to every agency, using their own travel data.”

This exercise is described as “crowdsourcing” in other publications that usually pay little attention to how the GSA administers its travel programs or analyzes travel data–one supposes because the novelty of the approach somehow makes it important.

The Travel Data Challenge raises a number of questions that are equally worthy of some attention. Here are some of the most obvious:

  1. The competition offers $35,000 for a winning submission; lesser amounts to other categories totally $90,000 in all. This is but a fraction of what such a solution would likely earn in the open market, which makes one wonder why any established developer would want to participate.

    Participants grant the government a perpetual, royalty-free license to any and all intellectual property comprising the winning entry. A good deal for government, but a bad deal for a truly innovative developer. While the terms of the contest go on to say that “All other rights of the winning entrant will be retained by the winner of the competition,” since the rules also say that “The final tool should be in Open Source Code,” we are left to ponder how little those remaining rights might be worth.

  3. The GSA has existing contracts-holders for a variety of travel management and analysis products. Why isn’t the innovation and creativity the agency desires forthcoming from these presumably well-funded and well-compensated sources? Perhaps the agency should be questioning whether its procurement and program management practices are truly adequate to deliver the sustained innovation it seeks, or if that is not the problem, then whether the incumbent vendors are up to the job?
  4. The Organization and operation of the event give the impression that many aspiring participants are unprepared for the task. Travel data analysis and interpretation is a complex and highly specialized field. The agency has provided only the sketch of what it wants to accomplish, and many of the online questions posted on the event site indicate that an understanding of the sources, tools, and objectives of successful travel management are equally barren within the community of interest developers. A much more thorough developer briefing is needed if all sides of the contest are to avoid wasting their time.


What Would A Proof of Open Booking Look Like?

One can spend considerable time and energy developing specific and detailed reviews of flawed theories and business proposals. Although appreciative comments and note are often the result, it’s important to recognize that this isn’t how business strategies should be developed.

The burden of proof rests with the proponents of new strategies and theories to use adequate and appropriate reasoning, and specific proofs to show that these are valid–not with everyone else to show why they are not.

Open Booking, as presently announced, is an ill-conceived business strategy that rests upon faulty logic, inadequate data, poor research, and a suspension of belief in how the real world operates. Its proponents have, or should have, certain obligations to correct these errors and show how Open Booking then remains a valid business premise.

Absent a much improved business case, the travel community is justified in rejecting Open Booking’s imaginary benefits without further argument. The disinclination of others to spend time refuting unsupported theories gives them no credence whatever.

Here’s a concise outline of how Open Booking must be proven. It’s not unrealistic and doesn’t assume more that a correct application of available evidence.

I’ve also attached a “conclusion” as to how likely we are to ever see any of these points addressed.

1)    Assume the Burden of Proof

Advocates of any theory, business or otherwise, carry the burden of proof which requires them to adequate demonstrate why their ideas are valid.

Statements about Open Booking such as “travelers are booking directly with suppliers and often times spending less money than if they go through a managed program,” or “there have been studies that have validated this but unfortunately, the status quo has swept them under the rug” are irrelevant commentary and establish nothing.
When you make such claims, it’s your job to substantiate them. Produce your evidence or abandon your claims.

Conclusion: The Burden of Proof is troublesome and inconvenient. It’s much more fun to make random, unsupported claims and suggest that people who disbelieve you should know better. The logical basis for Open Booking is so shaky that were unlikely to see a rush to defend it with more that opinion and speculation.

2)    Clearly and Comprehensively State the Proposition

Any business theory requires a detailed, comprehensive statement of what it is and how its proponents expect it to work. For Open Booking, that means more than the vague statements about how everyone is doing it so the result is therefore inevitable. The business proposition needs to be positively defended in order to be valid. Simply because flaws can be identified in the travel management process does nothing to advance the cause of Open Booking–there are other equally choices available.

The case for Open Booking also needs to consider business operations in the real world in detail and discuss how Open Booking affects each of them. A few short PowerPoint presentations do little to advance this discussion.

Conclusion: Building a correct business case is a lot of work, and Open Booking is a moving target that seems to evolve along a new line as soon as someone points out its shortcomings. It’s unlikely that anyone will expend the effort to improve this picture.

3)    Define Specific, Unambiguous Proofs That Your Assertions Are Correct

Once you’ve explained the business case for Open Booking, show us the clear proof-points that demonstrate the theory is valid and worth the effort. Not travelers are booking directly with suppliers and often times spending less money than if they go through a managed program” but how much, how often, under what conditions, and to what degree does this have to be so to offset costs and business risks?

Conclusion: If Open Booking could be substantiated in this way, someone would have tried to do so by now. The fact that proofs and evidence are abandoned in favor of opinion and anecdote is itself a demonstration of Open Booking’s failure.

4)    Use Objective, Comprehensive, Accurate, and Scientifically Correct Data

Forget self-selected surveys, tiny samples, biased questions, and the general lack of controls that infests almost all travel industry research. Produce data that can be defended, use it to establish your proofs, and then your Open Booking business proposition might have some validity.

Conclusion: Almost all travel research is useless and contrived to establish the preconceptions its authors want to perpetuate. This is unlikely to change anytime soon. As best (and this is conceding a great deal) the data in support of Open Booking are ambiguous.

Open Booking’s proofs and research should be straightforward and, if correct, should silence critics when accompanies by a comprehensive business proposition. It’s time this evidence is forthcoming.

5)    Comprehensively Describe How You Did Your Research

What precisely was your sampling methodology? How are your conclusions sustained by the raw data? What is an alternate interpretation of the data and how do you answer that interpretation? What would researchers have to do to replicate your research? Who sponsored your research and what are their and your predispositions?

Conclusion: Real research is transparent, fully explained and disclosed, and replicable. Spurious research sustains one-time conclusions or hides behind a proprietary cloak. This type of transparency and disclosure is very rare in the travel industry and non-existent as concerns Open Booking.

6)    State What You Cannot Yet Prove and How This Affects Your Conclusions

Scientific research acknowledges its shortcomings and identifies what cannot yet be proven as well as what can. It also admits areas where future evidence might disprove the theory. The quality of your interpretation of the evidence in support of your claims is as important as what that evidence specifically shows.

Open Booking lacks a real statement of its comprehensive business case, real proof-points that are offered to establish its validity, scientific evidence sufficient to establish the vague claims made in behalf of it, and a rational analysis of its very real deficiencies.

Conclusion: Open Booking’s proponents are no more likely to improve their process or develop their evidence in this area than they are in any other. Remember, if you are an advocate of Open Booking, you have the responsibility to develop and present your adequate evidence before anyone is obliged to give your ideas credence.

It’s not up to me or anyone else to disprove Open Booking–the burden rests with you. The six areas discussed here should be a minimum expectation.

The Business Reality of Open Booking

This analysis appeared October 9, 2013 in Cornerstone Information System’s “Insight & Opinion” section.

Open Booking, noun: A travel industry term concocted to describe the process whereby problems that don’t exist are solved using techniques that don’t work, so as to produce savings that can’t be defined.

I’m not specifically against Open Travel or Open Booking, but if it’s such a good idea a straightforward case should be made in favor of it, using real data and sound business arguments. The fact that this doesn’t happen is very telling.

Open Booking rests upon a theoretical foundation that is distant from the real world and requires us to suspend belief in how travel distribution works if we are to adopt it. A few business concerns and examples may bring Open Booking’s contradictions into focus.

Travel Management Companies

The “M” in TMC represents Management. TMCs provide value because they appropriately manage the travel process on behalf of their customers; when they fail that value disappears.

Open Booking’s proponents speak of the evolving role for TMCs looking like a subscription-based service where agents provide support regardless of where and how reservations are made. How this might be an improvement over a TMC’s involvement in the current online booking process is left somewhat mysterious.

In the real world, TMC experience and expertise can shorten the path to correct decisions and avoid the wreckage from bad ones. While it’s not impossible to clean-up problems after the fact, it is typically more difficult and expensive–as anyone with experience at a subscription-based 24-hour travel support service could tell you.

To suggest that TMCs should support corporate travel in this mode by default is to say that their services have little or no value–which is clearly not the case.

Whatever its flaws, travel management operates the way it does because it works. Desiring to correct those flaws is not a testimonial for Open Booking.

Duty of Care

Corporate travel managers should have concerns beyond the basic cost of travel services, one being duty of care. Broadly speaking, in the real world this is a generally accepted principle which says that individuals must take reasonable care when performing actions that could foreseeably cause harm.

It applies in business as in other areas of life. Concerning travel, the possible implications are obvious, as there are numerous services informed and prudent people should not use, places they should not go, and things they should not do.

Allowing or even requiring travelers to bypass a source of expertise that is well-known, established, and otherwise available to them might not cause a duty of care problem, but the potential is real and shouldn’t be dismissed in the quest for imaginary travel cost savings.

Managed or Not?

Open Booking supporters often affirm that it is not the same as unmanaged travel–a distinction without a difference. When you stop managing in the real world you allow events under your control to be handled in whatever ways the people involved feel is appropriate.

That is the essence of Open Booking. The fact that you might be able to collect data, count the cost of the result, and disagree with choices made doesn’t compensate for the lack of control.

Since 2002 public companies in the United States have operated under the Sarbanes-Oxley Act (SOX), which is a complex set of financial regulations that are intended to correct the financial and management errors that caused the financial scandals of that period. Among many other things, it requires the management of public companies to take specific responsibility for financial reports and for their own actions.

It also imposes requirements as to internal financial controls, conflicts of interest, and the level of understanding management and auditors must have over internal processes and procedures.

Travel is a significant part of most public company finances–often among the largest expenditures. While the specific implications of SOX vary substantially by company, why would it be in the interest of any manager facing such obligations to forsake management-based controls over expenditures that might be counted in the millions in exchange for unproven lower costs and a somewhat lesser level of employee complaints?

SOX is very difficult to reconcile with Open Booking–counting what has been spent or even establishing budgets for travel is not sufficient, as SOX requires control and meaningful representations that proper procedures have been followed.

The Business Reality

Open Booking as it is currently represented is a bad idea for travel agents who have no realistic role in its operation. It’s equally bad for corporate travel managers who are asked to abandon the tools that are central to doing their jobs.


Rethinking Data

This analysis appeared April 30, 2013 in Cornerstone Information System’s “Insight & Opinion” section

Data and their application have been a travel industry fixation since ADS was discovered over 30 years ago. When it became practical to collect the specifics of what travel customers were buying, suddenly it was an essential management task, effective competition hinged on being the best data manipulator, and travel managers were left to wonder what they should do with the piles of reports TMCs were cheerfully offering.

Most people are still wondering. Making better decisions that are enabled by travel data is a goal industry experts, acknowledge, respect, desire to achieve, and find surprisingly elusive.

A correct and productive data strategy for the travel industry is not difficult to identify, but its successful implementation requires discarding several cherished ideas.

Big Data…Big Deal

Some years ago, the CEO of a major national TMC (herein nameless) was fond of telling industry groups that it once “came to me in a flash of light that I was really in the information business.”

As I worked for a major competitor, I was also fond of telling the same story–with full attribution to its author. I added that perhaps his next corporate account proposal would be successful if he offered just reports…and no tickets.

Travel is not an information business; it is a service business and many of the most indefensible and irrational travel products were conceived when people lost sight of that fact. Where data support the delivery of effective and affordable customer service, analysis has a role.

Analysis for its own sake has few uses and is something for which most travel managers have a difficult time writing a check.

The current hot topic in reporting circles is “big data,” (ten years ago it was “data warehousing”). Apart from the fact that big data means lots of data from multiple sources, most people are challenged to explain its business rationale.

Under most conditions, “big data” is a term without meaning in the travel industry. Effective managers in all sectors of the industry need realistic business analysis goals, without regard to the size or complexity of a data set. Collecting the most data sounds highly scientific to most people and from that they incorrectly infer that the exercise must be valuable and that ill-defined real-world applications are justified.

Big data might have a role in such predictions as what travelers will buy, but even there the variables are so complex as to confound all but the most determined and expert analysts.

Where’s Your Talent?

Decision support tools for the travel industry have proven difficult to build and maintain, and the few companies that produce truly good ones are highly underrated for the value they deliver. A successful decision support tool enables better, more informed business decisions that cannot necessarily be anticipated when the system and the databases that sustain it are conceived.

As essential to such a system’s success as the skill with which it was designed is the insight it enables for its human operator. Systems people are prone to highlight data, reports, and analysis while overlooking the fact that a skillful, insightful, talented operator is what moves decision support into action.

The system’s role is to make that talent productive.

Without recognizing the role and composition of decision support, travel data analysts are likely to dive down any number of rabbit holes looking for new projects. One good example is the current fascination with data analysis projects that have subjective outcomes.

Systems that contrive to use data for calculating such things as traveler dissatisfaction with policy are ill-conceived in my view. A “dissatisfaction” report cannot escape the subjective and occasionally irrational nature of what it attempt to measure, a problem which is compounded by dozens of other variables that combine to make the result about as meaningless as arguing that green is better than blue.

Successful corporate travel data analysis is built upon clear business goals, and supported by decision support tools that empower insight and better conclusions in their human users.

They recognize the elegance found in simplicity and employ the shortest, most efficient way to deliver their results, and the travel managers using them do well to require specific answers from them to their real-world problems.