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Recovery board unveils makeover of stimulus spending Web site

Government-appointed watchdogs debuted on Monday the much-anticipated overhaul of, featuring sophisticated pictorial representations of spending data, advanced search functions, multimedia tutorials and some downloads.

The upgrade does not include new stimulus results, such as jobs statistics, which will be funneled into the site later in October.

The Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board intends the site to be a window into the Obama administration's economic recovery effort and has the expectation that the public -- concerned citizens, academia, journalists, agencies, states, recipients, Congress and special interest groups -- will visit the site to learn more about how the $787 billion in stimulus funds are being spent.

The site represents 10 weeks of work by a team of vendors that were awarded a potential $18 million contract on July 8. Stimulus contracts granted by federal agencies will not appear until Oct. 15, and information reported by the private sector and states will not be posted until Oct. 30. But board officials said they wanted the public to learn and test out the new features before then.

The financial data that is available on the site comes from the Federal Procurement Data System and, a database containing federal contracts and loans, and weekly financial activity reports from agencies. The recipient data will be fed from, an online inbox through which companies, nonprofits and states will submit quarterly spending reports beginning Oct. 1.

Due to the high visibility of the quarterly reports, the site could become a marketing tool for some recipients. But the board expects this quarter's data to be spotty and that the data will be cleaner in January 2010, after public and private officials notice that millions of people can easily see their reporting errors. During the January reporting period, recipients can go back and modify data that was entered incorrectly in October.

"Just throwing data up on a Web site doesn't enhance transparency," board Chairman Earl Devaney said in an interview with Nextgov. "If the data is not accurate it might [reduce] transparency."

Devaney said the site will track recipients' adjustments and make public a record of all the changes and the dates they were made.

The site offers translations in more than 50 languages, a handful of tutorials, basic and advanced mapping capabilities and feeds from the Federal Business Opportunities Web site and the application site

Visitors can enter their ZIP codes into a text box on's home page to view street maps and aerial views of the locations of the projects in their neighborhoods. Colored maps indicate the concentration of contracts that have been awarded in a certain locale by the intensity of color.

Currently, the site does not have the ability to let users search pages by contractor name, although officials plan to make that functionality available in a couple of months. Future iterations of will offer intuitive links that, for example, can route users to the recruitment sites of the top 10 contractors based on the amount of money they were awarded. "I think the site will help them get a job," Devaney said. "I'm not promising that on launch date, but it's definitely a goal to have that up by the second quarter."

Other planned improvements will allow outside Web sites and programmers to grab updates and specific data sets for deeper analysis or for paid services such as commercial publications.

Between October and December, the contractors expect to release downloadable data feeds in machine-readable formats such as Extensible Markup Language, a widely used platform for exchanging information online. Board officials noted that their efforts to ensure assistive technologies, such as Braille displays, which can read the site's content, have the added benefit of forcing all materials to be machine-readable.

The version of the site unveiled on Monday has a downloads section where the public can save agency spreadsheets to their computers, and after Oct. 30, download a bulk package of recipient data. Using their own computer programs, Web developers and citizens can search statistics however they wish, including by contractor.

The new platform resides on the Amazon cloud -- a Web-based hosting service -- as well as government servers and is supported by the Microsoft SharePoint content management system, Microsoft SQL data warehouse and ESRI mapping services.

To refine the site's navigation and data elements, board staff conducted more than 10 focus groups in cities including Boston; Dallas; Dayton, Ohio; Richmond, Va.; and Sacramento, Calif. Devaney said part of what they learned is that many people outside Washington do not even know what is.

"It's going to be word-of-mouth and Twitter" that inform young people who will then tell their parents what the site offers, he said. Board officials are promoting the new site on multiple social networking sites such as Twitter.

The board also has conducted usability tests on stakeholders to ensure satisfaction with the makeover and continues to seek feedback for further enhancements.

"I think this is the prototype for the future, but it is a prototype," Devaney said. "Long after [I am] gone, people are going to inherit these sites and make them better."

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