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By Nick Wakeman

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Nick Wakeman

Open government or hide in plain sight?

I’m all for open government and easy access to data on how the government spends our money.

But so far, the data available at Recovery.gov isn’t providing much in terms of insights.

The file is huge and difficult to work with. The next quarterly reporting period ends Jan. 10, so there is little doubt in my mind that the next release will be even bigger as more stimulus money makes its way to contractors.

Frankly, I’ve struggled with the spreadsheet for the last quarter of government fiscal 2009. The question that keeps going through my mind is: How are we supposed to use this thing?

There are obvious answers – who has won what and for how much? Taking the time to sort by NAICS codes yielded some results.

For example, IBM Corp., had a $43 million contract to help with the digital TV crossover. Booz Allen Hamilton won a $30 million contract to help build a system to manage grants to bring broadband services to underutilized areas.

However, to find those rather straightforward results took me several hours of trial and error during which I struggled to interpret column headers in the spreadsheet.

I’m not a whiz with Excel and I don’t have the strongest data analysis skills, but that’s sort of my point. Why do I need those skills to understand what the government and its contractors are doing?

That’s my nagging fear with the push for transparency. We get this flood of data but might miss the insights.

At the same time, I’m not sure what the alternative is. I’d rather have the data out there, even if I can’t make great use of it, than for it not to be out there at all.

In the meantime, we’ll probably see a growing cottage industry of data analysts who can slice and dice the spreadsheets and issue any number of reports – for a fee, of course.

My hope is that some reader will offer me some tips on how to wrestle this spreadsheet into something useful – what NAICS codes are you looking at? What columns of information are you finding most valuable?

Posted by Nick Wakeman on Jan 04, 2010 at 7:23 PM


Reader Comments

Thu, Jan 7, 2010

Interesting point of view. My next question would be: ok, we've sorted out the data, found out interesting data points, can we use them to influence government? can we held some civil servant accountable if one of the contracts goes awry?

Tue, Jan 5, 2010 Editor

Thanks for the copyediting tips. -- Nick

Tue, Jan 5, 2010

There is a huge quantity of data laid out by this system but I have been able to pretty clearly wade through it. There are keys to it: have a clear goal or piece of information you are trying to glean, know what variable matter, hide data that is not absolutely critical (hide it, don't delete it). From there it is just Excel sorting and filtering and a lot of scratch paper for notes. I can help if needed.

Tue, Jan 5, 2010

There is a huge quantity of data laid out by this system but I have been able to pretty clearly wade through it. There are keys to it: have a clear goal or piece of information you are trying to glean, know what variable matter, hide data that is not absolutely critical (hide it, don't delete it). From there it is just Excel sorting and filtering and a lot of scratch paper for notes. I can help if needed.

Tue, Jan 5, 2010

"I’d rather have the data out there, even if I can’t great use of it, then for it not to be out there." I assume you meant "make" to precede "great" and "than" not "then".

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