eGov Watch: Recovery.gov Goes Live

By Kurt Cagle
February 17, 2009 | Comments: 6

This is the first in a regular column O'Reilly will be doing on reporting on e-Government issues that take place in the last week. Click on the "eGov Watch" keyword for previous articles. If you have content you wish to be discussed here, please contact me at kurt@oreilly.com.

recovery.gov.png

Within minutes of Obama signing into law the economic stimulus bill (formally, The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA)), the web gnomes at the White House flipped the switch on a new website - Recovery.gov. If there is any question that Obama understands the medium of the Internet, its one that he (and his team) is rapidly dispelling: there has been more new web efforts debuted in the last three weeks than there was during the last eight years of the Bush administration.

More on that in a bit, but first a review of the site itself is in order.Recovery.gov The site itself is remarkably polished, feeling official without the frequent stuffiness that seems to be the hallmark of government sites. Visitors are greeted by a video of President Obama announcing the new portal and its purpose - to provide a way for people to see the progress of the ARRA's implementation over time, to establish a place for people to get access to resources, and a way to gain feedback from people on the program itself. THe video, hosted by YouTube, is high quality, although Obama needs to learn to cut down on the hand gestures that get clipped off at the bottom of the feed (as a hand gesturer myself, I know full well how hard an impulse that is to control when you speak to video).

The site provides a chart breaking down how the money is allocated - $288B in tax relief, $144B in state and municipal relief, $111B in infrastructure and science (yes!), $81B in protecting the vulnerable, $59B in health care reforms (mostly tied to electronic health records), $53B to education and training, $43B in energy systems and the remaining $8B in a general "other" category that likely includes administration reform. The site also provides links to the bill itself, though connection to that site eventually timed out, not surprising given that the bill itself is packaged as five large PDF files.

The site itself also includes a cute timeline widget (significantly, not a Flash app - apparently Flash has begun to become contentious on the government sites) that illustrates the breakdown of events set up by the ARRA bill:

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The timing is aggressive - grants to start being awarded within a week, allocations for entitlement programs to begin in less than three months, first reporting by recipients by mid-July. Obviously the intent here is to light a fire under the bureaucracies. One interesting consequence of this is that this may very well also jumpstart a more agile methodology within governmental agencies, as their mandates shift towards making frequent incremental changes and reporting in short, regular bursts. Whether the agencies will respond should give a good gauge to the degree of change that Obama will need to make at the civil service levels.

Beyond these features, the site includes a place for people to post their own "recovery stories", a feed showing the most recent articles posted to the site (including a photo exposition by White House photographer Pete Souza of the process of getting the bill into law). A FAQ with useful (and in some cases amusing) answers - such as the rather measured response that while XML of the data for mashups isn't currently supported, that feature will be added soon.

There are some very subtle messages being given simply by the presence of the site itself. One of the most important is that Obama and has team have recognized that they need to be able to control the message - not the media. Obama is telegenic and frequently funny, which makes news reports of his actions generally good news copy, but he also understands that the mainstream media, which was practically lethargic under the Bush administration until near its end, has been energized and is likely to be highly critical of his actions overall.

The Internet, on the other hand, is clearly the medium of choice for Obama. He's practically annointed YouTube as the carrier for his video ... and they have responded with some fairly impressive results. Furthermore, his use of video will likely serve as an example for others in his administration to do the same (if nothing else, there's definitely a future for videographers in the White House). Yet more to the point, he also has recognized that even the news producers (and certainly the decision makers) are increasingly going to the web first to obtain information, and as such, the Internet will let him both better control his message and defuse the influence that the mainstream media has on information flow from the White House.

By all indications, Recovery.gov should end up being a critical portal for both governmental transparency and, at paradoxically, governmental control over its message. Whether they can sustain the momentum of the these first few weeks remains to be seen, but overall, Obama's bidding fair well to becoming known as the Internet President.

Kurt Cagle is an online editor at O'Reilly Media. Feel free to subscribe to his news feed or follow him on Twitter


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6 Comments

That cute timeline widget uses the open source javascript-based data visualization framework Exhibit (see http://simile.mit.edu/exhibit/ ) for the timeline. The off-site link warning makes use of the open source jquery-based iframe framework, Thickbox (see http://jquery.com/demo/thickbox/ ). The jobs map does appear to make use of flash :( , though it is xml-driven.

The math does not add up at all. I cannot tell where the money is supposed to be going.

* Tax Relief ($288b) - includes $15 B for Infrastructure and Science, $61 B for Protecting the Vulnerable, $25 B for Education and Training and $22 B for Energy, so total funds are $126 B for Infrastructure and Science, $142 B for Protecting the Vulnerable, $78 B for Education and Training, and $65 B for Energy.

$15b + 61b +25b+22b+126b+142b+78b+65b = $534b

How can $288 billion include $534 billion?

Paul, in I interpret the chart correctly, what it means is that the $288B figure includes additional funds that apply to the other categories but fall within the category of tax breaks. If you broke the $288B apart there'd be about $165 in "general" tax breaks, and the remaining $123 would then be distributed among the remaining categories. The math works out right.

I'll believe anyone *gets it* when a bill such as the stimulus bill (over a foot tall) comes with spreadsheets that enable it to be analyzed before it is signed. It's a stunning and clear example of why the legitimization of the page metaphor in PDF concrete is devolution. Republication is not re-use.

Recovery.gov is post facto window dressing.

Len,

Notice that I haven't said much about the actual stimulus bill or the transparency process involved there (transparency?), only that Obama understands the importance of staying on message.

I do think that it is important (even critical) for those of us in the XML community to educate the policy makers about what transparency really means. We can grouse and grumble about it all day, but if there's not even an attempt at outreach, don't be surprised if at the end of the day PDFs remain the de facto standard. At least I feel now that there is a chance that people may listen and learn with this crowd, which is more than could be said for Bush.

Bush had a crowd. Obama has a crowd. Here in Alabama, we have Jesus On A Rock (no kidding). So now the busloads of tourists will come see this miracle of divining concrete patterns from meaningless surface deformations. Now THAT's staying on message.

If transparency is saying what they want to say to those who want to hear what they want to say, then let the busloads come. If they want the bill to be understood or transparency to reveal anything meaningful, then filing a foot tall stack of paper and a few PDFs at the last minute then declaring victory isn't the way to get it done no matter how fast they update the web site. A few well constructed spread sheets will speed up everyone's understanding who can understand. They said they came to change Washington so how about some real change?

But opening a web site? Why not put it all on Facebook?

The web is the Great Gazoo. And we are dum-dums. Toodaloo.

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