Cleaner and meaner
we expect you, the American people, to hold us accountable for the results.
That is why we have created Recovery.gov, so every American can go online and
see how their money is being spent." — President Obama, Feb. 17, 2009
By now almost everyone is aware of the "Obama
Stimulus Plan," more formally known as the American
Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of 2009. But not everyone is aware of Recovery.gov, the website that is being used to track the federal government's massive spending bill, the makers of the site, or that the entire thing was built on Microsoft SharePoint — a platform almost every government office already has.
version 1.0 (shown below) was powered by Drupal, an open source content management platform offering blogs, forums, newsletters and podcasting among its features. But users were not able to follow the recovery funds
from beginning to end as the Obama administration had envisioned — and promised. Nor could site administrators use the site to handle the approval process needed to collect, sort and display spending data being collected from recipients of the funds. As a result, the site became a target and verbal punching bag for watchdogs, open government advocates and lawmakers who were
underwhelmed with the content and capability of Recovery.gov.
The original Recovery.gov
In response, the
Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board charged with tracking stimulus
funds made the decision to change not only the site's look but also its core
focus and through the Government Services Administration (GSA) they solicited a contract
to redesign the site. That $18 million contract was awarded to Maryland-based Smartronix Inc., along
with Synteractive, TMP Government, and KPMG.
The "new and improved" site
While the new site (shown above), which launched with data last week, has
received a lot of good press, the big untold story is the platform and the
possible future of the site.
OhMyGov! sat down
with two of the people behind the site's construction, Synteractive's Jame Hirmas, Public Sector Director, and Jason Turim,
Business Solution Architect, to dig a little deeper into the blueprints for the new
Recovery.gov 2.0 site.
Although programmers will normally tell you they'd rather build a custom solution than use an off the shelf product, with only 11 weeks to develop Recovery.gov, the engineers needed a robust solution that could meet all of the government's security and governance requirements and still be flexible and scalable enough to meet the needs of an entire U.S. population.
"It made sense
to use an out of the box product," Turim said, and SharePoint is
"one of the most flexible platforms out there and the government already pays for it."
Development time that would have otherwise been spent building a custom 60% solution was freed up by the decision to use SharePoint, and that allowed the team to address other
key business problems, such as how to get data from hundreds of disparate sources. And while Microsoft has long been viewed with disdain for their near monopoly on corporate business platforms, this time, it saved taxpayers a good sum of money.
Not well known outside the enterprise market, SharePoint is a collection of products and software elements that can be used to host
web sites that access shared workspaces, information stores and documents, as
well as host defined applications such as wikis, podcasts, blogs, widgets, gadgets, pipes and microblogs. At its core,
SharePoint has built-in integration for reporting, collaboration, social networking, and other capabilities that can
greatly improve how the public interacts with the government and how government interacts with itself.
"SharePoint provides a lot of capabilities for those within government
with a product they already own which has gone through the lengthy (up to 2 years) federal
agency certification and accreditation (C&A) process that is not
intrusive with their current architecture," said Synteractive's Hirmas. "We really pride
ourselves in ‘best of breed' in technology, and while we are not a Microsoft
shop, we use Microsoft products, as they are so ingrained in the federal sector."
Another advantage the platform offered is tied to the overarching vision of the site. With SharePoint, users can create individual, separately branded sites off of the main dataset very easily. This will allow for the creation of 50 state Recovery.gov sites.
"The change from a
traditional website to a SharePoint platform has not only allowed new Recovery.gov site to
be rapidly created and deployed, but has set the stage for greater improvements
for the overall site in the near future," added Turim.
By "improvements" Turim means social networking capabilities, which he says are an inevitable and desirable next step. What might this look like? At a basic level, data from Recovery.gov could be made readily available through platforms like Facebook and MySpace. More advanced features could allow users to note errors in the data, interact with the data to construct new data sets and mashups, upload videos using the data to the site, and integrate various localized feeds from Twitter about data using static IP tracking. That way, a user in New York looking up information about her state would be able to see tweets from other New Yorkers talking about the state's funding. Of course, these are ideas the design team has that the government hasn't quite signed off on.
"The government wants to go into the social networking world, but they don't necessarily know what that means," said Hirmas.
Apparently, the Recovery Board members are fearful that allowing any integration with social media might allow inappropriate content on the site or break the site's apolitical bent, which the Board has tried hard to maintain.
Regardless, the new Recovery.gov site stands worlds above the previous version built. A full review of the site will be available shortly. Stay tuned!
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