Private sector zips past government in Recovery Act tracking

The charter for the Obama administration's Recovery.gov Web site is to allow every citizen to monitor the progress of economic stimulus spending. It's an ambitious goal, and one that government might not reach for some time.

But a private sector company boasts it already has created a site that meets the government's objectives.

On March 31, Seattle-based Onvia launched Recovery.org, a site capable of tracking every dollar of federal, state and local Recovery Act spending in real time, according to company officials.

For example, assume you are a resident of Yellowstone, Mont., and want to know how your county is spending its portion of stimulus funding. Through three drop-down menus on Recovery.org's homepage, you could scroll through a pre-solicitation notice for a contract to repair Little Bighorn Battlefield Road, or learn details about a drainage project in the Lockwood area.

On Recovery.gov, you would be directed to Montana's Recovery Act site, and from there, you could spend hours sloshing through tutorials on the state's education and energy projects without ever finding details on spending in your neighborhood.

"We put up Recovery.org to do for the federal government what it is not doing for itself," Onvia Chief Solutions Officer Michael Balsam said. "We felt that we had an obligation to make this information available to businesses, taxpayers and the government."

For the past decade, Onvia has used a complex system of data-gathering tools to track the procurement spending of more than 89,000 federal, state, local and educational entities. The firm is able to convert the information -- be it presented as HTML, a Microsoft Word document, or a PDF file -- into a common format and embed it into a uniform database.

Shortly after the passage of the $787 billion Recovery Act, Onvia officials decided to use those tools to create Recovery.org. In addition to a master database of all contract announcements, solicitations and awards, the site features graphs on spending in particular economic sectors, a state-by-state breakdown of projects and estimated job growth figures.

When state and local spending announcements are not published online, the company tracks the information in a more traditional way: by scanning dozens of daily newspapers and looking for public notices of awards and solicitations. The database does not include grants yet, but it will as soon as that information is reported, company officials said.

About 60 researchers contribute to the project although significantly fewer work exclusively on the data gathering. While the information is free to the public, the company acknowledges that part of the goal is to attract new clients to for-profit acquisition-related subscriber services.

The next step, Onvia said, is to format the data so users can filter it by contractor, project type or federal agency; currently the information can be sorted based only on the geographical region of the project. Onvia also plans to allow citizens to download the data so they can create mash-ups, or overlay it with other information sources, such as census or crime statistics.

Onvia officials insist they are not in competition with Recovery.gov, but it's hard to avoid the comparison, particularly after Vice President Joe Biden mistakenly told the public during a February press briefing to follow the stimulus at Recovery.com -- a Web address that redirects visitors to the Onvia site.

At this point, the administration's Recovery.gov site is mainly a clearinghouse of stimulus information, from White House press releases to links to other Recovery Act pages. It has weekly agency spending reports, but that information is not yet compiled in a single, searchable database.

Officials with the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board, which was given $84 million in part to develop the site, acknowledge it's a work in progress.

"We are building a Web site to handle an unprecedented amount of data that will come pouring in in October" when the first major quarterly spending figures will be available, said Nancy DiPaolo, spokeswoman for the board. "The fairest comparison of Recovery.gov with any other recovery site can only be made at that time."

Chairman Earl Devaney testified during an April Senate oversight hearing that the board plans to have an outside entity conduct an independent review of Recovery.gov and will eventually hire a vendor to revamp and expand it.

But, the board likely will face a number of statutory and technological challenges. Office of Management and Budget guidance released earlier this month requires Recovery Act recipients -- including states, prime federal contractors and subcontractors -- to report how they are using the funds. But, these entities often do not share a common reporting system, or one that is compatible with the federal government's primary databases.

According to Onvia Chief Executive Officer Michael Pickett, the federal government would have to acquire information from 80,000 disparate sources if it included state and local spending. Comparatively, USASpending.gov, the government's popular contracting and grant-tracking Web site, draws from a handful of databases.

"It's an example of how difficult it is to track funds once they get outside the Beltway," Pickett said. Onvia's tools, which include complex Web crawlers, capture spending announcements at all levels, he said.

"The goals and intent [of the administration] are absolutely right," Balsam said. "But, they've got no experience and no reach into local communities and states. There's no basis for them to go figure out where everything is, because there is no reporting relationship in place. It's an intractable problem for the administration."

Onvia officials said they would be willing to help the Recovery Board develop data collection tools, but that there still would be challenges.

"There's a level of subject matter expertise in this space that is requisite to meet the challenge," said Onvia Chief Information Officer Eric Gillespie. "You can build databases and create user experiences on the front end that are sexy. You can create an underlying network topology and infrastructure that serves the purpose. But even with all that, at the end of the day, it is all about the data. And unless you've got the data all of the technology in the world really doesn't matter."

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
JOIN THE DISCUSSION
Close [ x ] More from GovExec
X CLOSE Don't show again

Like us on Facebook