Software // Information Management
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9/8/2009
03:22 PM
Seth Grimes
Seth Grimes
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Questions and Answers about USAspending.gov

My blog article on USAspending.gov's design flaws has attracted record page views, boosted by coverage on Slashdot, Government Computer News, and other outlets. Posted comments reveal many misconceptions about the site. I'll distill the more interesting ones, with some of my own, into a series of questions. Noting that "government should be collaborative," I'll attempt answers myself...

My blog article on USAspending.gov's design flaws has attracted record page views according to IE editor Doug Henschen, boosted by coverage on Slashdot, Government Computer News, and other outlets. Posted comments reveal many misconceptions about the site. I'll distill the more interesting ones, with some of my own, into a series of questions. Noting that "[g]overnment should be collaborative," I'll attempt answers myself.Q1: Has the site been fixed? A1: The site's graphics programming error, incorrect use of the Google Chart API, has been corrected, but accessibility for persons with disabilities is more difficult to remediate and is still lacking. USAspending.gov continues to violate requirements of the 1998 Amendment to Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act.

Q2: Shouldn't we cut federal CIO Vivek Kundra and staff some slack, given how quickly they got USAspending.gov out there in response to Obama Administration policies? A2: USAspending.gov is not a new site. "The underlying technology for USAspending.gov was developed by OMB Watch with the support of The Sunlight Foundation and is used on OMB Watch's website located at FedSpending.org. USAspending.gov utilizes the public version of the FedSpending.org site as of September 2007 (v2.2)."

Further, one Slashdot poster comments, "I work at the Sunlight Foundation... [T]his isn't their first pass. The underlying data systems -- FAADS and FPDS -- have existed since the 90s, and have been riddled with errors throughout their existence. Instead of fixing the problems, OMB continues to slap new coats of paint on the same lousy data."

Q3: "How many companies have stupid errors on their website, menus, marketing, or anything else and we don't get upset?" Why focus on government-site issues? A3: Just as commercial organizations are accountable to shareholders and for compliance with reporting, disclosure, and other requirements determined by government and industry bodies, the government answers to public and legal mandates. This particular site was mandated by the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act of 2006 (Transparency Act), which was introduced in the senate by Senators Coburn, Carper, Obama, and McCain. It launched, under the Bush Administration, in December 2007. Then-Senator Barack Obama welcomed the launch, calling the site the embodiment of a "commonsense vision of Government transparency and accessibility."

Q4: Since the site is based on outside technology, not developed or maintained by the government, shouldn't it have been excused from Section 508 requirements for accessibility to persons with disabilities? A4: No. "New procurements... shall include requirements that have provisions for Electronic and Information Technology (EIT) Accessibility Standards."

Q5: Who maintains the site? A5: The government contracted with REI Systems (REI) of Herndon Virginia to provide USAspending.gov "support and engineering services for the on-going operation, maintenance, and enhancements": "a 1-year, $2M contract with options to extend the contract to 5-years and a funding ceiling of $10M." FY2008 contract information (1, 2) may be found at USAspending.gov; I could not find any record of FY2009 funding, which would have covered from October 1, 2008 on. REI CTO and Executive Vice President Shyam Salona told me the FY2009 option had been exercised but he has not yet gotten back to me with a URL for the USAspending.gov contract record, if there is one, or an explanation why there isn't one.

Q6: So what went wrong? A6: The graphics issue was clearly due to a programming error. We all make mistakes. Clearly a CMMI-DEV Level 3 certification like REI Systems' doesn't immunize against errors.

Shyam Salona of REI Systems told me that his company had used a variety of software tools to test Section 508 compliance. Post-development testing does not substitute for sound pre-development design by individuals who are knowledgeable about requirements, which I'd infer was lacking. You know: "A stitch in time saves nine." I'll also observe that testing tools are typically less than fully effective if the individuals who are using them do not fully understand what they're testing for.

Q7: Are there data issues beyond the non-present FY2009 REI Systems records? A7: Others have raised questions about the site's completeness and data quality. I'll point out a very significant completeness issue: The site totally ignores subcontracting, which is very, very common in the federal contracting world. For example, my company, Alta Plana Corporation, has earned over $1.4 million as a federal subcontractor in the last 10 years or so but there's nothing on this in USAspending.gov. The lack of subcontracting information is a huge site deficiency in my opinion.

Q8: You called the site "old-school, a mockery of Gov 2.0 principles of interactivity and responsiveness and community." Is that harsh language justified? A8: President Obama was one of four senators who introduced legislation that created USAspending.gov. Here's what he said in December 2007 on the occasion of the site's launch: "I am also confident that people will use the site and will provide feedback directly on the site's community 'Wiki' function for collecting and sharing public comments. This will raise the expectations of all Americans for greater transparency, access, and accountability." I posted my comments to that very feedback Wiki, where despite the then-senator's call for raised expectations explicitly and directly linked to that very Wiki, they still haven't been responded to.

Q9: You called USAspending.gov's IT Dashboard "less than compelling" and said that you would be writing more extensively about it. When will we see that article? A9: I changed my mind, sorry. I'm not going to write about the IT Dashboard, but I will recommend Stephen Few's review, which he posted on his Visual Business Intelligence blog on August 3. I've learned a lot from Steve. He wrote, "As someone who has designed a great many dashboards, I can say without reservation that the Federal IT Dashboard is about as useful in its current form as a typical business dashboard, and this isn't a compliment." I don't have anything especially significant to add.

Q10: Is anyone paying attention to this site, other than folks looking to bash government work? A10: USAspending.gov doesn't get a huge amount of traffic, judging from Alexa statistics, but all the same it's valuable for federal contractors and, one would hope, for federal program managers. By the way, Federal CIO Vivek Kundra's July 13 statistic that "there have been more than 20 million [IT Dashboard] hits so far" seems misleading. Hits are not page views or visits. A typical site visit will generate multiple page views, and each page view will involved many hits consisting of a retrieval of a particular HTML, image, style-sheet, JavaScript, or other file. For instance, there appear to be 27 image files and 18 JavaScript files loaded from the IT.USAspending.gov main page according to a quick count I made. Each file loaded would be counted as a separate hit.My blog article on USAspending.gov's design flaws has attracted record page views, boosted by coverage on Slashdot, Government Computer News, and other outlets. Posted comments reveal many misconceptions about the site. I'll distill the more interesting ones, with some of my own, into a series of questions. Noting that "government should be collaborative," I'll attempt answers myself...

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