Defragmenting the Stimulus: 5 easy steps to take to the next level

Courtesy of Forrest at O’Reilly Radar recently blogged about the plethora of options for mapping the stimulus package’s investments. A few states and government agencies have created their own mapping portals, and a few software makers have pulled some of the stimulus data into their own tools. Considering the inaccessibility of public data before the Obama administration, these are all a huge step.

But each site has its own silo of data, and no site is complete. What we need is a unified point of access to all sources of information: firsthand reports from and state portals, commentary from StimulusWatch and MetaCarta, and more. The trend toward information liquidity has prompted web tools for fields as different as human services and social networking to allow data to flow freely between different silos. The federal government can use this same paradigm to turn into a radical tool for transparency.

With already-existing technology, the federal government could easily revolutionize in just a few steps:

  • Require all data from state and agency Recovery portals to flow directly to, which will act as a unified point of access to each of these smaller portals. This will expand the map to include every project, nationwide, without requiring White House staff to gather additional information. Crowdsourcing is effective because the general public can easily gather more information than just a few administrators can. This technique will be effective because 50 states and dozens of federal agencies can easily gather more information than just the White House staff can. We know this works because we’ve done it here in Allegheny County.
  • Make the data specific. Each project should be able to be represented by an icon on its actual location, not just the center of its municipality (or worse, state). Let us know exactly where the money is being spent. We’re interested in the big picture, but we’re also interested in our neighborhoods.
  • Give us tools to make our own maps. We should be able to customize the style of visualization, and which records the map displays, in order to create maps that are truly meaningful to us and our communities.
  • Give us the data for use in our own tools. We should be able to download the data not just as feeds and KML files, but also as CSV files for use in the systems of our choice.
  • Let us share. We should be able to download and share the maps we create at online via social networking, blogs and e-mail, and also in print. If the White House can Tweet at us, we should be able to Tweet back — and to back up our discourse with data.

A comprehensive map of all the stimulus projects, everywhere, from first-hand sources (i.e. the government agencies funding them) would yield a truly transparent and informative look at American Recovery and Reinvestment Act investments, and allow the public to easily evaluate the effectiveness of the projects it’s paying for. The fact that all of these different micro-portals exist clearly illustrates that the technology to create a comprehensive map exists. Like with most projects, the issue isn’t that the technology doesn’t exist — it’s making the vision a reality.