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Recovery.gov asks citizen developers for ways to improve site

The contractors that are refurbishing Recovery.gov have reached out to citizen developers for advice on how to make raw data available on the site, which the Obama administration plans to relaunch on Sept. 28.

The official stimulus-monitoring site is intended to show the public the results of the hundreds of billions of dollars in spending that Congress authorized in February to stimulate the economy, including the number of jobs created, the amount of money spent and timelines for projects down to the neighborhood level. But when the government published requirements for Recovery.gov this summer, some open government advocates voiced concerns that the spending data on the site would not be easily accessible to other sites.

After the criticism, companies designing the site asked the public to exchange ideas for data feeds and downloads with them online. A conference call will be held next week. The goal is to publish the new Web services in machine-readable formats such as Extensible Markup Language, a widely used language for exchanging information online, on Recovery.gov between October and December, according to officials with Synteractive, a consulting firm that specializes in social media, which is working on the project.

Rusty Talbot, director of Synteractive's public sector practice, on Thursday posted a note on a discussion group hosted by the Sunlight Foundation that said the government "aims to set a new standard of transparency with this site and would therefore like to make the data available in the most convenient and straightforward way (or ways) possible so you can use and analyze official, up-to-date Recovery Act data. We need your input to achieve this goal."

The discussion group he selected is targeted at members of Sunlight Labs, a group of volunteer developers nationwide that the foundation recruited to build technologies for increasing government accountability.

"We're figuring out the logistics of how to reach everyone," he said in an interview with Nextgov.

The vendors are open to all suggestions but note they are bound by regulatory and bandwidth restrictions. The public cannot be given direct access to the raw contents in the government database FederalReporting.gov, where recipients submit their quarterly reports, because some of the information is proprietary or confidential.

In addition, "we need to be careful that we're not putting up these huge data sets that will bog down things," Talbot said.

As of Friday afternoon, four programmers had weighed in with suggestions, such as make the data accessible through permanent links, set up a regular schedule for updates and offer developers an application program interface, which is a set of procedures and tools for building software applications.

Raymond Yee, a lecturer at the University of California's Berkeley School of Information, responded that he wants to see a list of "all the pots of money" that have been appropriated. "Now, Recovery.gov does list the amounts obligated and spent by agency, but how much money has been appropriated?" he wrote. "That basic data should be clearly documented at Recovery.gov, so that we can track the flow of money reliably from the originating legislation to Treasury out to the agencies and then to contractors and grantees or the states."

Yee's colleague, Eric Kansa, executive director of the information and service design program at the school, was one of the developers who criticized the proposed setup earlier this month. "They really seem to be working in a black-box, with little or no clear channel for public evaluation and feedback," he said at the time. "It sure would be nice to have greater transparency in the design and shaping of the transparency system."

On Friday, Kansa commended the contractors for seeking input from online transparency advocates. He cautioned that the developer community needs to be specific about technical recommendations, "and that takes a lot of time and effort, too." Kansa and his colleagues plan to share with the contractors a prototype of a suggested distribution model.

Fund recipients are required to submit their first quarterly spending reports to the government on Oct. 1. Federal contract data will post to Recovery.gov on Oct. 15, followed by results from the private sector, nonprofits and states on Oct. 30.

Separately on Friday, the board overseeing stimulus spending and Recovery.gov, announced that much of the new site will go live on Monday before recipient data is entered to give the public a chance to learn how it works. Also, the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board will activate a toll-free fraud hot line for individuals who want to report allegations of misconduct. Alternatively, citizens can submit complaints electronically through a link on Recovery.gov.

Board Chairman Earl Devaney will appeal to his so-called citizen inspectors general -- or anyone interested in rooting out fraud, waste and abuse -- through social media outlets, including the video-sharing site YouTube. Individuals who would like to broadcast miniblog entries about the site through Twitter can do so using hash tag #ARRA.

"Our goal here is to provide the facts and the tools for the public to decide whether that is a good use of the public's money," Devaney said in an interview with Nextgov earlier in September. "We're going to put the facts and the tools up so that people can mash it up." The functions should allow citizens to draw useful observations, such as, "That's the mayor's brother in law -- I'm going to call the Recovery Board," he said.

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