Recovery.gov: Point, click, follow the money

Interactive mapping presents information, makes data more accessible, informative

Recovery.gov had an inauspicious start.

Created by the General Services Administration in early 2009, Recovery.gov was designed to show the public how federal economic stimulus money is being disbursed. However, the first iteration of the site proved to be too unfriendly for the public to derive any real benefit. Content editors couldn't update the site on their own because they had to go through a webmaster based with a contractor, causing delays on a site that had to provide real-time information.

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So the agency contracted with systems integrator Smartronix to redesign the site — to the tune of $18 million over five years.

The result has been a well-defined site that uses interactive mapping to present information in an accessible and informative way. Its data visualization features bring dry statistics to life.

By clicking on the blue map on the home page, you can see how much of the $787 billion of stimulus funding each state has received. Drill down to an interactive map for more detailed information to find out where the money is going. If you want to find out who has received funding and the various stages of projects started with the funding, type in your ZIP code. Users also can electronically report suspected fraud.

In addition to the recipient-reported maps, gold-tinted agency reported maps display data from three sources: federal agency financial reports, the Federal Procurement Data System and USASpending.gov. A purple diversity map shows population distribution compared with the location of awards. A green unemployment map shows unemployment rates in the location of awards in a specific area.

Data from all these sources convey a snappy visualization of the effects of stimulus law awards on diversity and unemployment.

One map, designed by noted information graphics innovator Edward Tufte, lights up to display awards from Feb. 17, 2009, to Sept. 30, 2010. Tufte, professor emeritus of political science, statistics and computer science at Yale University, is an award-winning expert on visual displays and content and design, and he is a board member for Recovery.gov.

Recovery.gov pays more than lip service to the promise of open government. Private developers can access live spending data from the portal and mash it up with government and nongovernment data for better insights into the data. Smartronix worked on that feature with JackBe, a developer of mashup technology.

Recovery.gov’s Developer’s Center also includes user-configurable Web widgets. For instance, the State Data Summary Widget lets users post on their personal or business websites data summaries sorted by state, county, congressional district or ZIP code. The center also includes an application programming interface for direct access to grant data.

The widgets and API introduce a new level of access and opportunity for policy-makers, the public and watchdog organizations to use the information to make better-informed decisions, analyze spending patterns and investigate waste.

The initial site was built on a Drupal open-source content management system. However, the new team deployed Microsoft’s SharePoint as the core platform that supports Recovery.gov. SharePoint provides an integrated suite of collaboration, content management and enterprise search capabilities.

Recovery.gov, which runs on Amazon EC2 cloud services, uses Microsoft SharePoint 2007 and the Fast ESP advanced search platform. Both take advantage of Microsoft SQL Server to manage the underlying business intelligence, analytics and reporting capabilities that help make the data on Recovery.gov more accessible to the public. Fast ESP is used for content residing on the Recovery.gov site, while Bing searches the thousands of websites of fund recipients across the Internet, allowing users to view relevant data.

SharePoint also exports content to Facebook pages and Twitter and subscribes to Really Simple Syndication feeds.

But a large part of the story is how Microsoft capabilities are being applied with open standards and interoperable architecture to work together with other components, including  mashups, geospatial technology and Web services from Yahoo and Google.

“We leveraged SharePoint, largely because it is a platform that is already adopted inside agencies for intranets,” said Evan Burfield, chairman and CEO of Synteractive, a consulting firm working with Smartronix, TMP Government and KPMG. “So being able to extend that capability out to public-facing Web presences makes it easier for agencies to keep the content up-to-date, lively and well governed.”

About the Author

Rutrell Yasin is is a freelance technology writer for GCN.

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