Watchdog groups say that data from Recovery Board first posting of stimulus data inaccessible

A number of groups are saying that the first online posting of data on stimulus spending was not accessible to the public difficult to search and incomplete. Critics say the site can be improved by making it so that the public can mount a search by recipient. -DB

October 15, 2009
By Aliya Sternstein

Government officials in charge of tracking spending aimed at stimulating the economy released on Thursday unprecedented details of financial transactions, but the information they posted on the Web might be unintelligible to the public, information specialists and watchdog groups said.

The Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board posted the first-ever spending reports from companies that received federal stimulus contracts between Feb. 17 and Sept. 30. The information posted on the official stimulus-tracking Web site,, includes the money the companies have spent, summaries of their projects and the number of jobs the contracts have created or saved. The data accounts for $16 billion of the $275 billion that the federal government obligated during the first reporting period. Updates from businesses, nonprofits, states and universities on the bulk of the other funds — from grants, loans and nonfederal contracts — will appear on Oct. 30. has rendered the data into maps, tables and downloadable files. But the site is not user-friendly because its contents are poorly worded and hard to search, critics charged. Consequently, the site does not yet provide the public — including lawmakers, Web developers and the unemployed — with information they need to draw conclusions on the recovery’s progress or where workers could find jobs, they add. For example, the status of bridge repairs, the source of job creation numbers and employment opportunities are difficult to discern from the data.

“Where does the $16 billion come from? I can’t use the Web site to quickly tally that,” said Gary Bass, executive director of OMB Watch and co-chairman of the Coalition for an Accountable Recovery, a group of about 30 public interest organizations. “To me that’s the value added that this Web site could have brought” in reconciling numbers from multiple sources.

In addition, visitors cannot search by recipient. “That’s really unacceptable for a Web site,” Bass added. “This is the first time that you’ve really got the recipient data, which you can’t search.” Board officials have said they plan to make that search feature available in a couple of months.

Bass stressed that the problems with the site can be resolved because the board has developed a smooth process for feeding reports into Since Oct. 1, recipients have been electronically submitting the results of their work into, a password-protected database that updates the information on

“It’s easy to fix Web sites,” he said. “It wouldn’t have been easy to fix if they hadn’t had a means and requirements for reporting.”

Bass also commended the board for executing the launches of both sites in less than five months and expects officials likely will continue enhancing

Web developers familiar with the stimulus reporting requirements said they could not decipher some of the project summaries listed on the site. One synopsis of a General Services Administration contract awarded to the District of Columbia for construction work states, “1. a) Contract Option #2 — Phase 2 GMP, exclusive of the add alternate for the Aquarium Entrance, is $74,188,449.00. b) The work of Phase 2 is being accelerated and includes additional scope not anticipated at the time of contract award. Additional major scope items include: modifications to the electrical equipment enclosure (EEE) in.CY1, upgraded roof structure for the chiller plant, green roof in CYI, modifications to bollards and security elements, temporary electric feeds required for the EEE, upgrades : required for the blast window installation; and replacement in lieu of repair of roof drains, and other items, as listed in Attachment’ A. . . .”

“If you can understand or provide me with a definitive one-sentence answer as to what this contract is for, based on what I’ve read [here], then is successful,” said Clay Johnson, director of Sunlight Labs, a division of the Sunlight Foundation, which builds Web applications to encourage accountability in government. “What is this? Who writes this?”

Beneath the blurb is a link to another Web page that users can click on for an explanation of some of the terminology.

The summaries the board posted were written by federal agencies. Board spokesman Ed Pound said the board does not have the authority to instruct agencies how to compose their contract language. “We just merely post what they provide us,” he said.

Pound said he thinks the public will have no problem navigating the site for information on their states. “Obviously it’s not perfect and we’re going to keep improving this,” he said. “Yeah, we’ve had glitches, but we’re fixing these things as we go along. And we’re asking people to let us know what these problems are and we’re working to fix them.”

Johnson said the solution to providing transparency or information that is understandable to the public would be for the board to write Cliffs Note summaries of every report it receives, rather than posting the verbatim reports. The complete word-for-word submissions, however, still should be available for download, he added. Such data sets are provided on the site, Johnson noted, applauding the board for providing detailed information in consistent formats.

Still, Johnson criticized the language in the data sets. The spreadsheets use labels to categorize contents, such as “funding agency” and “awarding agency,” that might confuse all but those intimate with the intricacies of regulatory guidance. The site’s glossary does not explain the distinction. Government guidance explains that a funding agency is a federal agency that receives funds through a Recovery Act appropriation. An awarding agency administers those funds on behalf of the funding agency.

Creating graphics and maps should be secondary to publishing data in an intelligible form, Bass said. He pointed to the site’s capacity to search by ZIP code as the kind of intuitive features that there ought to be should be replicated.

“I think that the download capability that we’ve seen today is extremely convoluted,” he said. “For a given state, you get three files and you’ve got to parse those files apart” for prime recipient awards, subrecipient awards and vendor awards. “It’s not a good system.”

Audiences that are disappointed with the initial release or the round of data due to be posted on Oct. 30 will have to wait until next year for more comprehensible information, according to Michael Balsam, chief solutions officer at Onvia, a business intelligence firm in Seattle. The company offers a free competing site called

Second quarter reports from recipients are due on Jan. 10, 2010.

“The expectation has been well set that this is sort of a practice run,” Balsam said. “You’re a year into the recovery before you get a complete view.”

Pound said the board will continue to work on the site. “I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished here. This is a very tough job. It’s never going to be a perfect site for everyone,” he said. “We really care that we get this right for the public. I think this is a historic program and I think this is the way the government goes down the road. Everytime you do something new, you’re going to have hitches.”

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