Slippery conditions are on our mind of late. We're heading to the Sunlight Foundation's Transparency Camp this weekend in Washington D.C. The ability of citizens to access government information is important to us, and lookng at various stimulus watch sites brings this home to us after friends asked for help in understanding one site in particular.
The friends' questions about that "stimulus watch" site taught another lesson: the importance for site designers to make the nature of their own sites--and the nature of the data that they contain--perfectly clear to the casual researcher.
All data isn't equal, and potential users--especially those who don't research for a living--need to be able to know what they're mining. They shouldn't have to dig to find that basic information about the database, either.
Our friends' confusion, coupled with headlines like Saturday's WaPo's Obama to Hold Cities Accountable for Stimulus Spending . sent us looking for sites that allow people to learn more about how money is being spent under the newly signed Recovery bill. Our search provided a look into the fascinating world of websites that re-crunch datasets, what the sites are, and what the casual reader might take take them to be.
The Obama administration has set up http://www.recovery.gov with the intent of allowing citizens to see how their tax dollars are being spent. The self description:
The site features a timeline, which suggests when information about projects and spending with become available. However, since the project themselves in the 50 states haven't been selected yet, there's still not much to look at. That situation should change quickly in the coming weeks.
Again: recovery.gov is the official site. Given the enormity of the database management issues involved, it's not surprising some kinks need to be worked out. Watchdogs are keeping an eye on the Big Dog at recovery.gov. More on this development in a moment.
When using the limited, non governmental stimulus watch sites that have been set up, users should look carefully at the way those private sites' designers used what are at this point essentially wish lists We're hoping that users stop to consider the critical thinking tools they need to evaluate watch sites themselves. A look at the site that brought friends to us for help in a bit.
First, the watchdogs taking a close look at the government site.
The challenges of integrating different sets of data from state and local governments are detailed in Transparency of Recovery.gov under scrutiny at the Federal Computer Week site:
Some of the state and local government databases and networks expected to send data into Recovery.gov are not as advanced as the federal site. They are not all compatible with one another or federal formats, according to several watchdog groups involved in oversight of the stimulus. Experts say fixing the problem could prove challenging at a time when the goal is to speed stimulus money into the economy as rapidly as possible.
“When the federal authorities give money to states, that tracking is kind of opaque,” said Craig Jennings, federal fiscal policy analyst with OMB Watch, which recently helped form the Coalition for an Accountable Recovery with 32 organizations. “The federal government gives money to states, states give it to cities, and it gets convoluted.”
The watchdog groups urged the Obama administration and the states to quickly standardize those data formats and transmissions to maintain the most up-to-date and accurate stimulus spending totals.
The database challenges with tracking federal spending are not all new. Some issues surfaced in the development of USASpending.gov, which has been operating since December 2007. While the Web site has received high marks for transparency in general, it has a mixed record on subcontracts and grants.
Administration officials have pledged that Recovery.gov will allow visitors to track the stimulus spending. That database will contain data flowing into it from federal, state and local agencies and possibly contractors. About half the stimulus money is expected to flow through state and local governments.
On May 20, federal agencies are to begin reporting their competitive grants and contracts, according to Recovery.gov. On July 15, the recipients of grants and contracts, which include state and local governments and businesses, will report on their performance.
The coalition members are (alphabetically):
|21st Century School Fund
Building Educational Success together (BEST)
Center for Cities and Schools
Center for Community Change
Center for Economic and Policy Research
Center for Fiscal Accountability
Center for Responsive Politics
Center on Policy Initiatives
Economic Policy Institute
Good Jobs First
National Institute for Money in State Politics
National Training and Information Center
Open Technology Initiative/New America Foundation
Partnership for Working Families
PICO National Network
Progressive States Network
Project on Government Oversight
Smart Growth America
Taxpayers for Common Sense
Transportation Equity Network
United States Public Interest Research Group (U.S. PIRG)
Go take a look at what the umbrella recovery transparency watchdog group is up to. We've bookmarked the site for our own reference.
Now, the look at one the most heavily promoted private sites set up to let citizens monitor recovery project. Unfortunately, the limited scope of this site doesn't offer any local projects for Southern Minnesotans to follow. Friends report their consternation after using one site in particular, though their reactions are the result of a simple omission of prefatory information than from some darker to design to exclude them.
This site has gotten a lot of attention, but what impressed us as we dug into the FAQ was the very limited scope of the data. If the projects are NOT part of the stimulus bill, what are they?
We had to go off the site itself to find out.urns out that the projects are drawn from a report--itself complied from four surveys--by the U.S. Conference of Mayors, which draws its membership from leaders of cities of 30,000 or more. In Minnesota's First Congressional District, that means Rochester and Mankato.
And yet when we dig into the USCM's report from 779 cities, we find that neither community was part of the four surveys. We also had to go the the USCM site, and dig into the pdf of the report to find out in one place the number of cities included; on page 3 in the pdf, we learn:
The USCM site provides a number of ways to review the data. What the Stimulus Watch site provides, then, isn't so much accessible data (since that is searchable from a number of ways at the USCM site) but a forum for citizen watchdogging and commentary.
For the moment, it has nothing local for Southern Minnesotans to watchdog, though some of them were eager to chart the progress of the $625 million in local project requests they'd heard or read Congressman Walz forwarded to the Pawlenty administration. That's what brought this site and the larger questions raised about all citizen monitoring sites for the recovery to our attention.
As the comments on Stimulus Watch's own post about a recent KSTP report that mentioned the project reveal, our friends aren't the only ones going to Stimulus Watch and drawing hasty conclusions. The difference between projects in the USCM wish list that was used to construct the site's database--and the yet-to-be determined projects that will actually be funded-- could be clarified with a single sentence.
That sentence, on the front page of Stimulus Watch could simply state that it database only includes projects from the 779 cities included in the United State Conference of Mayors' report. We don't think the project's creator wanted to mislead anyone--we think they just didn't give enough thought to the casual researcher who isn't familiar with site and database evaluation.
In short, most of the country. Figuring out the limits of the database needn't be that hard. Transparency advocates should create tools that don't require a grad school bakground in research methods to use.
Photo: from the Albert Lea Tribune's Scott Schmeltzer. Rep. Tim Walz on Saturday morning at Hy-Vee in Albert Lea.