A newbie stimulus-tracker plunges down the rabbit hole

 Stimulus money everywhere but so hard to keep track of it! I’ve spent many hours in the past two weeks browsing—eyes squinted, my headache increasing by the minute—through dozens of stimulus web pages cluttered with undersized text. If you’re suspicious why your local news outlet hasn’t covered much beyond the surface of stimulus funding, try looking into an interesting project near you. Finding the interesting part of the project is the real crux. But let’s just start with finding projects in the first place.

I’m guessing the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA, the stim commandments) will be marked in history as the biggest effort to date at transparent government spending in the digital age. There are literally thousands of government stimulus websites from federal agencies to state to county to city. Most cities and counties in the Bay Area have a website, or a section on their website, dedicated to sharing information on stimulus projects and contracts, with the notable exception of Alameda County.

And then there are dozens more websites from citizen groups and non-governmental organizations dedicated to tracking those federal dollars as they’re siphoned out around the country. I’ve had an average of ten stim pages open on my desktop all week, terrified that closing them will render them hopelessly lost in cyberspace, which means I’d have to start all over in my search for an interesting stim story.

Too much information? Nah, never too much information. But very, very hard not to get lost in the rabbit hole. That said, here’s what I’ve learned.

 TOOLS FOR TRACKERS

There are three basic websites to get you started: the official US government stimulus website (www.recovery.gov), the official State stimulus site (www.recovery.ca.gov) and, the one I’ve found to be the least headachy to browse, a national stim tracking site developed by the private firm, Onvia (www.recovery.org or www.recovery.com). This last one I found thanks to an NPR story about it that aired on September 23.

As for watchdog groups, there’s www.stimuluswatch.org where you can search for projects by state or city, and vote on whether the project seems critical. You can also sort projects by cost and number of jobs created. www.propublica.org has excellent stim tracking resources and stories that help you actually understand what’s going on.

The City of Richmond has a cool visual stimulus tracker: http://richmondstimulus.visiblestrategies.com (wonder how much they paid for that?), which displays the city’s stimulus-funded projects in different priority areas around a spinning earth. The projects are supposed to be ranked but “workforce” is the only one currently ranked (it got a 10 out of 10; it’s not clear who’s doing the ranking).

The City of Oakland also has a useful stim site (http://www.oaklandnet.com/economic_stimulus/), though it was last updated July 8, and the last news was posted May 13. Contra Costa County has a modest but somewhat useful stim site (www.co.contra-costa.ca.us then look under “ARRA Stimulus Funding” on the left), with a funding chart updated to August 4, 2009. Alameda County doesn’t have any dedicated stimulus section that I could find (but then again, who could find anything on their website?).

San Francisco’s stim website: www.recoverysf.org gets my vote for the most up-to-date, easy-to-use and participatory site around the Bay. It even has a button where you can submit and vote on ideas for using the stimulus money (the current topic is improving access to broadband in underserved areas).

 DEEP IN THE HOLE

A few curious tidbits I found on the SF website: on the bar graph of stim funds awarded to date, “Other” has received by far the most funding: $174.54 million. These are projects taking place in the Bay Area but headed up by the federal government. The biggest project here is the makeover at 50 United Nations Plaza, which when finished will house the Federal General Services Administration.

Another few clicks, and one can find out who got that juicy, $$7.9 million contract: Dallas-based HKS Architects Inc. & San Francisco-based ARG Architects Inc. A little snooping found that the project apparently was first granted to London-based Foster and Partners, but American firms made a stink and the project was re-awarded to the locals.

That’s it? you say. No, that’s not it, I’m still looking down some rabbit holes. I just hope I can find some treasures and find my way out before the stim money’s all used up.