Recovery.gov verdict: half-baked

by on October 19, 2009 · 8 comments

Last month I wrote about the imminent release of raw stimulus spending data and said that the jury was still out on the Obama Administration’s transparency pledge. Well, we’re now pretty close to a verdict, and it’s not good.

On Thursday, Recovery.gov added reports from the recipients of stimulus dollars–contractors and grantees explaining what money they got, what they’re doing with it, and who they have subcontracted. At Stimulus Watch we immediately got into the data looking to build the next version of our service, but soon found it was almost hopeless.

Recipient reports are offered in CSV format, which is not the most elegant way to present the data. Worse, the Recovery.gov “Download Center” offers three files for each state–one for prime recipients awards, one for sub-awards, and one for vendor awards–which means you have to piece them all together to do nationwide analysis. First, as far as I can tell, all vendor awards files are empty. Second, what we immediately wanted to do was tie the sub-awards to the primary awards (i.e. tie the subcontractors to the main contractor), but found no unique ID that could bind them together. Even worse, many of the data fields are inscrutable, and no glossary was provided.

Finally, while the agency reports of the money they’re doling out includes both the address of the contractor and the address of the project itself, the recipient reports only include the contractor’s address. In order to let citizens know what recovery projects are in their neighborhoods, however, we need to know the place of performance, not simply the construction company’s address, for example.

Others have also panned the release on data quality and other issues. This is not the “unprecedented” level of transparency and accountability that we have been promised, and it’s certainly not what I expect from an $8 million website. Vice President Biden, in charge of ensuring recovery transparency, should take notice and take action.

There are many of us in the developer community who want to help make possible the thousands of “citizen IGs” that Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board Chair Earl Devaney has touted. In order to do that, though, we need the data, and this isn’t cutting it.

Cross-posted from Surprisingly Free. Leave a comment on the original article.

  • brucevannice

    Maybe Larry Lessig was prepping us for the release of this report with his recent article in the National Review suggesting excessive transparency isn't really such a great thing anyway.

    Or maybe this was just a “transparency malfunction” that will be remedied with endless hearings and lengthy court actions to ensure exactly the right data is presented in exactly the right way so all us plain folk can process it appropriately.

  • brucevannice

    Maybe Larry Lessig was prepping us for the release of this report with his recent article in the National Review suggesting excessive transparency isn't really such a great thing anyway.

    Or maybe this was just a “transparency malfunction” that will be remedied with endless hearings and lengthy court actions to ensure exactly the right data is presented in exactly the right way so all us plain folk can process it appropriately.

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