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Tracking Stimulus Spending May Not Be as Easy as Promised

Standing as a counterpoint is Recovery.org, which was started by Onvia, a Seattle-based company that for a dozen years has been compiling bid solicitations from all levels of government to sell to vendors and contractors that pay a subscription fee.

To draw attention to its product, the company is pulling all the stimulus-related contracts it finds and posting them on Recovery.org, where they can be searched free on a map, state by state and county by county. A visitor looking for what's going on in, say, Virginia can find nearly 150 specific stimulus projects that have been posted for bids in that state, whereas a visitor to Recovery.gov's Virginia page sees only the general program-by-program allocations.

Virtually the only spending reported on the Virginia government's stimulus page is for education money that has already gone out. Meanwhile, two other federal sites, FedBizOpps.gov and USAspending.gov, which Obama helped launch as a senator, offer some stimulus data, but they are limited to federal contracts. USAspending.gov tends to operate on a time lag.

Executives at Onvia say they do not envy Devaney. It has taken the company more than a decade to develop the deep-dive search technology it uses to scour the Internet for contract notices, and it directs 60 of its 200 employees to do research, many flipping through dozens of newspapers a day looking for notices.

The executives, who have given advice to Recovery.gov's designers, say it will be difficult for the site to duplicate with top-down reporting requirements what the company does in a bottom-up way with its search engines. With so little harmonization between federal, state and local financial methods, developing a standard reporting system is unrealistic, they say.

Instead, they urge Devaney's office to dig up information that it can post without waiting for the October reports, because as gradual as the spending has been, there will still be billions of dollars going out the door in the coming months.

"They need to get data up. People get so worried about getting the product right, instead of just getting it out there," said Onvia Vice President Eric Gillespie. "Just put it out there and let people react to it, and it will get better and better over time."

But Devaney is being more methodical, saying he wants to settle on the right approach to the site before spending a lot of money on it. His office, which is funded by $84 million in stimulus funds and has about 30 people devoted to the site, helped organize an online dialogue late last month to solicit ideas that drew 1,600 participants, and is now sifting through the many pitches it has received from tech companies offering their services to help develop the site.

He is confident that the site will live up to its billing. "We have four and a half years to turn this thing into its final product," Devaney said. "My intent is not to have people come once and never come back. I want it to be good enough that the citizens who look at this site become the eyes and ears for the [inspector generals] and see things that normally an IG would have to stumble across."


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