$9.5 million later, new version of Recovery.gov launches


Since February, when the government launched a Web site, Recovery.gov, to provide a window on the federal stimulus package, critics have been calling for a makeover.

Now they have one.

The revamped Web site, unveiled Monday by the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board at a cost of $9.5 million in stimulus funds, provides easier-to-use tools, such as a ZIP code search that shows stimulus projects in local communities. The government has also opened a toll-free hot line — 877-FWA-DESK — for reporting fraud, waste and abuse.

“This is definitely a step in the right direction,” said Craig Jennings, a policy analyst at OMB Watch, a nonprofit government watchdog.

Still, the government has a way to go to achieve complete transparency, Jennings said.

The site, for instance, does not include complete data on recipients of stimulus money, and users face significant hurdles to using the information that is available.

“It’s more of a nose job than a face-lift,” Jennings said. “You need to put these data in a simple text format that people can download and use in Excel.”

Cheryl Arvidson, a spokeswoman for the Recovery Board, said that Web developers were working on creating better features for downloading, but that it was hard to judge ease of use on data yet to be posted.

The government will release comprehensive data about recipient contracts Oct. 15, according to the Web site, and will post grant and loan information Oct. 30.

“This is a transformative Web site for the government, and we expect it to get better,” Arvidson said.

On Monday, the Recovery Board announced the new site on Twitter with a link to a YouTube video featuring Earl Devaney, chairman of the board, speaking directly to the public.

For several months after the site debuted, curious Americans found little detailed information about projects in individual states. In July, additional state-specific data went up on the site and Smartronix, a Maryland-based Internet and technology company, was selected to design a new version.

Gabriela Schneider, a spokeswoman for the Sunlight Foundation, a nonpartisan group urging greater political transparency, said the site’s biggest feature, a revised map of the country that contains more detailed information on agency spending, is a “real positive move” toward increased transparency, but work remains.

“We’re hoping that this is not the final version and that they are open to a creative process going forward,” Schneider said.

The real test for transparency will come in October, said Eric Gillespie, the chief information officer for Onvia, the company behind Recovery.gov.

“This is not about technology. You could build the sexiest user experience on the front end, but unless you have the data on the back end, it doesn’t matter,” Gillespie said. “It’s not about the map.”

(c) 2009, Tribune Co. Source: McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.