Buzz of the Week

Stimulus map quest: It’s a long road

Recovery.gov's revamp impressed with its new mapping capability; the only catch is the incomplete data

Data without context is meaningless to anyone but a specialist. But context without data is not so helpful either. Such was the dilemma presented by the Obama administration’s revamp of the Recovery.gov Web site, which was unveiled last week.

On the one hand, public policy experts and transparency advocates were impressed with the site’s new mapping capability, which lets users see how stimulus funds have been spent in their states, counties, congressional districts or even their own ZIP codes.

By displaying information on a map, the site makes it possible for even the most casual users to see at a glance how stimulus spending affects their neighborhoods. No advanced degree in statistics needed, just a computer with a mouse.

“While individual states have been experimenting with the use of GIS for tracking and reporting stimulus spending, the level of detail and the use of GIS to visually present the data for a spending program of this size is unprecedented,” wrote Computerworld blogger Robert Mitchell.

The site also gives a nod to policy wonks, giving power users the option of downloading the raw data so that they can do their own number crunching.

The only catch is the data. A lot of data is still missing because the site only shows data reported by federal agencies, not from the state and local level where a lot of the action is. That data should be available by the end of October, but experts wonder how accurate it will be.

One concern is “the Office of Management and Budget’s lax rules dictating how frequently [updated] and detailed the expenditures and jobs reports need to be,” Aliya Sternstein wrote at Nextgov.com.

OMB Watch, a transparency advocate, found numerous problems with the site. For example, it includes a special section that lists noncompetitive contracts that have been awarded, but “the list is in a PDF and provides no links to further information about the contracts,” Craig Jennings wrote in his review at OMBWatch.

The Denver Post’s Miles Moffeit notes a number of other information gaps, including data on subcontractors, stimulus expenditures worth less than $25,000 and administrative costs paid by nonfederal agencies.

The last one hits close to home for Denver Post readers. According to Moffeit, Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter apparently paid $40,000 to his former law firm “to help advise the state’s stimulus-oversight board.” Such a payment won’t show up on Recovery.gov “because the Recovery Act doesn’t require reporting of administrative costs,” Moffeit wrote. “Those expenses include consultant fees, according to the governor’s office.”

The net result, some experts seem to feel, is a great map for displaying questionable data.

Nonetheless, the Obama administration did win some kudos, even if grudgingly.

“Even with these flaws, it's still a timely reminder of how much federal data is locked away from the public (either intentionally or through obscurity and bizarre data formats), and how much more easy it is to navigate with a map-based interface,” wrote CBS News blogger Declan McCullagh.

An added bonus, noted by the Wall Street Journal’s Louise Radnofsky: The site can be translated into numerous languages, even Latvian.

About the Author

John S. Monroe is the editor-in-chief of Federal Computer Week.

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