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Suggestions on Building

By Ed O'Keefe

What Would You Do?

A big element of the Obama administration's plans to distribute and oversee economic stimulus funds is, eagerly anticipated as the administration's first stab at opening wide the doors of the federal bureaucracy. The Eye has taken great interest in Earl Devaney's efforts and recently asked some former colleagues and government transparency experts to weigh in. YOU should leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

"My vision here is that every reporter in America will wake up and click on this site and be looking for problems," said Devaney, chairman of the group responsible for overseeing the distribution of stimulus funds. His group will soon take control of the Web site.

Devaney says it will be at least one year until the site reaches full operational capacity and he hopes it becomes "easily retrievable and understood by taxpayers, lawmakers, and watchdog groups alike. The public must be given the opportunity to provide feedback and be heard."

So how can he do it? What should he do?

"Whatever data is published on the site should be made available in machine-readable format such that journalists and private citizens alike can take it to run independent analysis," said Adrian Holovaty, a former developer and founder and creator of EveryBlock, a site that tracks news in major metropolitan areas literally block-by-block. Holovaty hopes that third-party sites could "mashup" the data, or present it in different ways for different purposes.

Beyond the technology, the government will have to serve multiple audiences.

"The government has a challenge of designing a site first for the public's use, and then also for the use of journalists and researchers," said Derek Willis, a member of Interactive News Technology group at The New York Times and former staffer. "The two audiences have different needs; a single person might only want to see stimulus spending in his or her local area, while a journalist might want to get bulk data to do an independent analysis."

Willis thinks the government should avoid hiding everything behind a search engine, offer some way of knowing when new items were added to the database of spending and provide as much context and explanation as possible.

Regardless of the technology or expertise of the site's staff, the quality of the data will matter most, according to Craig Jennings and Adam Hughes of OMB Watch. The pair argue that while administration officials and OMB staff understand the necessary Web technologies and practices, they may not yet appreciate the poor quality of government data. There's no government-wide system of data collection, nor one way to tag or define numbers and other data.

Devaney agreed with those concerns, recently telling lawmakers that "We need to all be playing off the same sheet of music. If I'm going to be held accountable for this Web site, and there's a graph in there that talks about jobs created or saved, it's going to be as accurate as I can get it."

So what would you do? Leave your thoughts on how the Obama administration should build in the comments section below.

By Ed O'Keefe  | April 9, 2009; 1:20 PM ET
Categories:  What Would You Do?  
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