I’ve already pointed out a few issues with the federal recovery.gov site and our state’s stimulus tracking site in an earlier post, but now a national group has come out with a report ranking every state’s stimulus Web site.
The results are not encouraging. Oklahoma’s main stimulus site manages a score of just 20 out of 100 possible points, according to the rankings by Good Jobs First. The Oklahoma Department of Transportation’s stimulus site fares a little better, at 33 out of 100.
“Given the Recovery Act’s high profile, we expected better results, but most state ARRA [American Recovery and Reinvestment Act] sites simply do not measure up,” said Philip Mattera, research director of Good Jobs First and principal author of the report. “The challenge is not insurmountable. States such as Maryland, Colorado and Washington are doing a very good job in conveying vital information about stimulus spending and are leading the way in establishing best practices for state ARRA disclosure.”
Good Jobs First does say Oklahoma’s site includes good information on the broad allocation of stimulus funds. But it faulted Oklahoma for not including information about jobs saved and/or created and for failing to provide stimulus funds by geography.
If there is a silver lining in the report, it’s that most other states scored close to Oklahoma. The average score in the Good Jobs First report was 28. Just six states scored 50 or better for their main stimulus site: Maryland, Colorado, Washington, West Virginia, New York and Pennsylvania.
Good Jobs First had several recommendations for state stimulus Web sites:
1. Put a summary of key information about ARRA spending at the top of the home page of the site. A clear bar graph, pie chart or table showing the main spending flows goes a long way in helping the user begin to see what the Recovery Act is all about. There should be clear links to pages with more details about the various programs.
2. Provide a map or a table showing how overall ARRA spending and the amounts in key categories are being distributed geographically around the state.
3. Along with information on spending streams, report on individual projects being funded by those programs. Where possible, display the location of the projects on maps. Interactive displays that allow one to drill down for more details are better than static PDF maps. [emphasis mine]
4. For projects carried out by private contractors, be open about the contract award process and the identity of the companies that win bidding competitions. Post the bids and the details, including the full text of the contract awarded to the winner.
5. While the federal government’s Council of Economic Advisers is responsible for estimating the overall employment impacts of ARRA and the Recovery.gov website will report jobs data on some (but not all) individual projects, state ARRA sites should also make an effort to include employment data in their project reporting.
6. ARRA sites should provide readily accessible information about the ways that individuals, organizations and businesses can apply for stimulus grants and contracts.
I’m sympathetic to a point about some of the Oklahoma Web site’s shortcomings. After all, the stimulus money continues to trickle out of Washington to the states. And we’re all new at finding the quickest and most effective ways of keeping track of it.
The folks at OK.gov, who administer the state’s stimulus site on behalf of the ARRA Coordinating Council, put me in touch with the Webmaster for the stimulus site. I’ve also got a call into the governor’s office. I’ll update when I hear back from them.
UPDATE: Behind the scenes, budget officials, agency coordinators and Web programmers are working to get additional information on the state’s stimulus site by the federal deadline in October. Among the possibilities are map mashups and raw data feeds and downloads.
Meanwhile, Paul Sund, Gov. Brad Henry’s spokesman, said the state ARRA Coordinating Council will meet again, but no definitive date has been set. The council last met in March.
The state Department of Education has released its initial projections of how much money each school district can expect from state coffers in the upcoming school year. You can read my colleague Dawn Marks’ story here.
We’ve compiled the projections into a searchable database on our Right to Know page. You can search for your school district by either county or district name, or both. You can also download the spreadsheet and do your own analysis.
Included in the state aid this year is about $167 million in federal stimulus money that lawmakers added to the state Education Department budget to avoid cuts. Districts can expect more stimulus money from the state later in the year.
Those figures don’t include other stimulus money each district is eligible for in special education funding and what they call Title I help for math and reading programs in districts with higher proportions of low-income students. (For more on that chunk of stimulus money, read Dawn’s earlier story here.)
Looking at the figures, aid to most schools is down this fiscal year as compared to the final amounts they received in FY 2009. And financial officials in the districts expect this year’s amounts to decline as the state revenue picture becomes clearer:
Because revenue collections for the state have been lower than expected, allocations could change, said James White, assistant state superintendent for finance. “It may get worse. We may have to reduce those later,” White said. “Right now we’re telling school districts not to do anything drastic but to plan for cuts.”
Without stimulus money, the picture could have been bleaker, state officials said. It’s also important to remember that the state aid allocation is just one part of the funding for public schools. Other money comes from local property taxes and regular, non-stimulus, federal funding.
Here’s a quick look at the top 20 districts and their FY 2010 projected state aid amounts compared to last year:
How much is too much when it comes to tracking our lives on the Web? Has the deluge of information online made us think differently about we see our world?
USA Today has a fascinating story today on those questions, and more.
I’ll be the first to raise my hand and say that I can get a wee bit obsessive about tracking government information on the Web. After all, that’s part of my job description. But I hadn’t realized how much this story hit home until I thought about the time I’ve spent tracking purchases from Amazon or Apple. For example, when I bought my Apple laptop in 2005, I could track its movement from the factory in China to my doorstep in Oklahoma City. And I did. Obsessively.
Of course, I don’t think I’m quite to point where I track every instance of my life on the Web. That’s the subject of this story from Wired magazine. You can also check out The Quantified Self site here. And if you’re on Twitter, you can track your life using it with this project from data visualization site Flowing Data.
The prize for the most visually interesting personal metrics project has to go to graphic designer Nicholas Felton, who has been producing “annual reports” of his life since 2005. Here’s the latest cover from 2008:
Today’s info-chroniclers are just the latest in a long history of diarists and scientists who kept notes by hand. Nineteenth-century English inventor and statistician Francis Galton, who introduced statistical concepts such as regression to the mean, was an obsessive counter who created the first weather map and carried a homemade object called a “registrator” to, among other things, measure people’s yawns and fidgets during his talks. (Mr. Galton’s preoccupation with data, specifically with human hereditary traits, also yielded an unsavory by-product — eugenics.)
In 1937, a social research organization called Mass Observation in London used about 2,000 volunteers to develop an “anthropology of ourselves.” For more than a decade, participants recorded such things as their neighbor’s bathroom habits and what end of their cigarettes they tapped before lighting up. Personal tracking also showed up in “Cheaper by the Dozen,” a 1948 book about efficiency experts Frank Bunker Gilbreth and Lillian Moller Gilbreth and their attempts to track and optimize the daily routines of their 12 children (including when they brushed their teeth and made their beds).
Finally, the award for too much information has to go to the squirm-inducing Bedpost!
Want to see which companies and lobbyists have given to state lawmakers and other officials?
Twice a year, the state Ethics Commission puts an Excel file on its Web site detailing gifts to lawmakers and public officials. We take the files, combine them into one database, and make them searchable online.
This summer’s update covers the first Legislative session since a new rule went into effect limiting lobbyist gifts to $100 per lawmaker. That means each lobbyist can give up to the $100 maximum for each lawmaker or official. The previous limit was $300 in a calendar year.
Just checking the database, the overwhelming share of gifts are either football and basketball tickets or meals. Of course, the popular stereotype is one of lawmakers getting wined and dined at fancy area restaurants. But my guess is that it’s always been more about time and access than big spending at ritzy restaurants. So the new gift limits, while laudable, may not be curtailing special interest influence as they were intended.
Here’s a few totals from the first half of 2009:
(Full disclosure: My wife, Jennifer, is a former reporter who is now press secretary for the Speaker of the House. She shows up in the lobbyist gift database a few times under her maiden name, Mock, and her married name.)
The U.S. Census Bureau has released its breakdown on who voted in 2008. Despite all the hype about massive voter turnout, the numbers overall don’t distinguish 2008 from prior presidential election years.
But the census estimates do point to upticks among the young, blacks and Hispanics.
“The 2008 presidential election saw a significant increase in voter turnout among young people, blacks and Hispanics,” said Thom File, a voting analyst with the Census Bureau’s Housing and Household Economic Statistics Division. “But as turnout among some other demographic groups either decreased or remained unchanged, the overall 2008 voter turnout rate was not statistically different from 2004.”
I took a closer look at the Oklahoma numbers and came up with the following chart for the last three presidential election years. As you can see, compared to 2004, every category except black and Hispanic was down in Oklahoma.
Note: The census didn’t break out several other race categories, such as Native American and Asian & Pacific Islanders, at the state level. Also, Hispanics can be of any race, according to the census.
Nationally, the states with the highest percentage of voters were Minnesota and the District of Columbia, each with voting rates of about 75 percent. Hawaii and Utah were among the states with the lowest turnouts, each with approximately 52 percent, according to the census.
So, we paid a government contractor $1.1 million for 2 pounds of sliced ham? That seemed to be the story as the Drudge Report started linking items from the federal government’s Recovery.gov site this morning.
Not so fast, said the Agriculture Department, as it swatted down Drudge’s reports with a rare rebuttal.
Now, all this back-and-forth might seem a bit excessive for a few pounds of sliced ham, but it illustrates one of the perils of transparency without context. Our government spends billions each year to collect, maintain and analyze all kinds of data. But it’s collected by humans, who make mistakes.
Take the ham fiasco. Everything appears above board in the original description on Recovery.gov. But because of the “Description of Work/Service Performed” field, it looks like we paid a bunch of money for some pork. That’s not necessarily an error, but it’s definitely not clear to most readers. (I probably would have drawn the same conclusion, although I would check it out first before writing a story.)
The people who deal with government data on a regular basis know all too well the problems associated with collecting and disseminating data. In the field of computer-assisted reporting, we call it “dirty data,” and we’re on guard for it all the time. (A chunk of my time as Database Editor is spent cleaning up data we get from various local, state and federal sources.)
Here’s how the folks at the Institute for Analytic Journalism put it in 2006:
An uncountable number of public agency databases have been created in the past 30 years. More and more, public and private decision-makers draw on this collected, digital data to make decisions about everything from disciplining doctors to zoning decisions to law enforcement to deciding who gets to vote. The often-unquestioned assumption is that the data, as found, analyzed and presented by a government or quasi-government agency, is valid. Increasingly, anecdotal evidence indicates that data is riddled with serious errors. Often, if initial investigations indicate the data is too suspect — and the cost to clean the data by hand or automatically too high — then good and important analysis and investigations are put aside.
The Government Accountability Office recently put out its own report on the subject of government data. The report is mainly a guide for government auditors, but they recognized the problems of all these disparate sources of data, and the public’s appetite to put it all online.
While this guide focuses only on the reliability of data in terms of completeness and accuracy, other data quality considerations are just as important. In particular, consider validity. Validity (as used here) refers to whether the data actually represent what you think is being measured. For example, if we are interested in analyzing job performance and a field in the database is labeled “annual evaluation score,” we need to know whether that field seems like a reasonable way to gain information on a person’s job performance or whether it represents another kind of evaluation score.
In journalism, we try to follow the age-old advice of, “If your Mother says she loves you, check it out.” Maybe Drudge should do the same thing?
Tracking federal stimulus spending can get to be a full-time job in itself, so I always like it when officials make government data easy and accessible to use.
Take the latest maps from the federal recovery.gov site:
Looks pretty nice, right? It is, until you start drilling down into some of the data. Unfortunately, bureaucrat-ese is still alive and well. Here’s the description that popped up when I selected a stimulus project underway in Kingfisher:
Recipient Name :URS GROUP, INC.
Project Description :COTTONWOOD 15 DECOMMISSIONING DESIGN – THIS TASK ORDER IS ISSUED UNDER AN EXISTING IDIQ (COMPETITIVE). THE ORIGINAL IDIQ DID NOT OBLIGATED FUNDS AND WAS NOT ENTERED INTO FPDS BY THE ORIGINAL CONTRACTING OFFICER.
Available Funds :$138,905
Project Location : KINGFISHER, OK
I have to admit, I have no idea what any of that means, other than who got the contract and for how much.
It took two more clicks to finally get a clue about what that project entailed. Apparently, the money is going to a Denver-based firm for some type of soil conservation engineering project in Kingfisher.
This is all fairly normal, at least according to the stimulus site explanation:
The orange dots indicate the location of a project funded under the Recovery Act. Click on a dot and see the company that received Recovery money, the project, the amount of money allocated for the project, and its location. In most cases, the company and the project are in the same state, but they may not be in the same city. There are instances when a company based in one state has a project in another state. For example, a company with headquarters in the South may have a project in the Midwest or Northeast. As data is submitted, we’ll update the map.
Meanwhile, over at Oklahoma’s official recovery site, here’s the latest table of disbursements, from early June. (Click to see larger version):
In fact, much of the Oklahoma-specific data remains trapped in PDF files here, with very little in the way of organization. And according to the site, the last meeting the coordinating council had about the stimulus was back in March. Maybe our auditor, the governor and others should take a look at what’s going on at other state stimulus sites, like Maryland.
If you live in or near Oklahoma City, you’ve no doubt heard about the pollution problems at the Oklahoma River (nee North Canadian River).
First, some triathletes were sickened after swimming in the river. That prompted the city to remind residents not to dump chemicals or other wastes into storm drains across the city, especially ones that feed directly into the river.
Now, the EPA has warned two local companies about animal waste running off into the river.
The companies in the EPA case have 30 days to resolve the matter, but in the meantime, you can check out the EPA’s MyEnvironment site. Just enter your ZIP code and get a wealth of information, from air quality and water quality to sites near you that have to report environmental data to the agency.
Need to find your closest post office? How about the nearest fire station, police station, school or tag agency?
Then check out the state’s newest Web site, OK.gov’s interactive mapping system.
Users can search for those places, and more, either by county or ZIP code.
“Our goal is to offer users a fully functioning map as a one-stop resource for state, county and local data in the state of Oklahoma,” said Mark Mitchell, general manager of OK.gov. “We look forward to expanding the maps information in the future with more data and new features, so we encourage users to come back often.”
And in the same vein, don’t forget to check out our mapping services on the Right to Know page.
I’ve now added the map to our Right to Know page under the “Maps” section.
I’ve also gone back and made a chart of the same information, broken down by tribe:
Source: Oklahoma Office of State Finance
It’s important to note that these amounts are what each tribe pays to the state from its gaming profits. The share is negotiated under the state’s Tribal Compact, which began in 2004 and expires in 2020. (Oklahoma voters approved State Question 712 in 2004.)
2. The fee shall be:
a. four percent (4%) of the first Ten Million Dollars ($10,000,000.00) of adjusted gross revenues received by a tribe in a calendar year from the play of electronic amusement games, electronic bonanza-style bingo games and electronic instant bingo games,
b. five percent (5%) of the next Ten Million Dollars ($10,000,000.00) of adjusted gross revenues received by a tribe in a calendar year from the play of electronic amusement games, electronic bonanza-style bingo games and electronic instant bingo games,
c. six percent (6%) of all subsequent adjusted gross revenues received by a tribe in a calendar year from the play of electronic amusement games, electronic bonanza-style bingo games and electronic instant bingo games, and
d. ten percent (10%) of the monthly net win of the common pool(s) or pot(s) from which prizes are paid for nonhouse-banked card games. The tribe is entitled to keep an amount equal to state payments from the common pool(s) or pot(s) as part of its cost of operating the games.