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Recovery board to provide public with original stimulus data

The board responsible for overseeing stimulus spending said on Wednesday that the public would have access to the same machine-readable data that updates Recovery.gov, a functionality that open government activists have been seeking. But public watchdogs and federal auditors raised concerns that the data might be flawed.

Federal reporting rules for stimulus fund recipients issued on June 22 announced the creation of a data collection portal at FederalReporting.gov, which ultimately will send spending data to Recovery.gov, the official public site for tracking stimulus funds. FederalReporting.gov will allow agencies and organizations that receive stimulus funds to submit spending reports directly to the Office of Management and Budget.

"Recovery.gov's data pull will be the same data pull that is available to the public," said Ed Pound, a spokesman for the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board, which maintains Recovery.gov. So-called citizen programmers "are going to be able to download the data that we have on our Web site and mash it up," he said.

Gary Bass, who sits on the steering committee of the Coalition for an Accountable Recovery, a group of about 30 public interest organizations, said members are adamant that the public have access to the same data feeds from FederalReporting.gov, which update charts, tables and maps on Recovery.gov.

Rights to the data are critical for transparency because obtaining content through an intermediary, rather than from the primary source, creates the possibility the data might have been manipulated, said Bass, who also is executive director of the nonprofit OMB Watch. In addition, a feed format is easier for citizen developers to use in building third-party Web applications, such as Stimulus.org, which foster independent oversight and a better understanding of recovery efforts.

Government transparency watchdogs are particularly interested in obtaining feeds coded in Extensible Markup Language (XML), a standard computer language for exchanging information over the Internet.

FederalReporting.gov is based on a platform the Environmental Protection Agency operates, called the Central Data Exchange, to collect data from state and local governments, tribes and industry. The contractor for FederalReporting.gov is CGI Federal, the same vendor that services the CDX, Pound said. The board simply bought into the CDX contract to support FederalReporting.gov, he added.

The coalition issued a report on Tuesday that praised the general framework of FederalReporting.gov, with some reservations. "This central reporting architecture has several advantages over an 'up-the-chain' system," in which agencies are responsible for retrieving the data, the analysis stated. The benefits include the ability to accommodate potential requirements "that all recipients of Recovery Act funds, regardless of how many layers removed from the initial federal disbursal that recipient is, to submit a report on the use of those funds," the report added.

But Craig Jennings, a senior policy analyst at OMB Watch, which co-chairs the coalition, cautioned that the Obama administration is focusing more attention on the displayof Recovery.gov than on the data collection end, which "is an important piece of the reporting puzzle."

Separately on Wednesday, at a House Oversight and Government Reform hearing on tracking stimulus funds, the Government Accountability Office raised concerns about the integrity of the data.

Lead recipients and federal agencies are obligated to conduct data quality checks, but reporting requirements do not mandate a specific methodology for performing the reviews, said Gene Dodaro, acting comptroller general. Instead, agencies only are expected to ensure the reviews are conducted consistently, with predefined standards for what constitutes a "material" data omission and "significant reporting error," he testified. "Although recipients and federal agency reviewers are required to perform data quality checks, none are required to certify or approve data for publication."

Furthermore, Dodaro added, it is unclear how recipients or agencies that flag suspect information are expected to resolve the issues.

The coalition's report, similarly, criticized the "significant ambiguity about penalties for reporting noncompliance."

OMB officials said they are working out kinks ahead of the Oct. 10 due date for the first round of stimulus reports. "Between now and the deadline, OMB is running trials on FederalReporting.gov to make sure it will operate smoothly during the upcoming data collection period, while also working closely with the Recovery Board to plan a series of seminars to train agencies and recipients about how to use this new technology," said Robert Nabors II, OMB deputy director.

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