Maryland is tops at tracking stimulus spending

By Robert L. Mitchell, Computerworld |  Government, economic stimulus

"The data in there now is not as granular as we want it," says Beth Blauer, director of the StateStat program. But that's just one item on her wish list.

"We are still dealing with a lot of issues as they relate to getting the data into iMap," the ArcGIS server behind StateStat, says Blauer. Those issues include data ownership, accuracy, age, how often data is refreshed and whether it will be meaningful to decision-makers.

Because the state agencies use many different GIS servers and databases, they export data in Excel format and give it to Blauer's staff, who must import it manually. It has been particularly difficult to maintain data integrity and get updates automated, she says.

Another goal is to add performance data that could, for example, illustrate the impact of a program by showing the effect of spending on the unemployment rate.

Blauer says that eventually, StateStat will be used at all levels of government and available to the public. "You'll be able to see where we are spending money in education and whether the test scores are getting better."

She also envisions adding tools to allow public participation online. "They will be able to engage in a dialogue with government using the data," she says. But that may take some time: Blauer has just five people on staff.

While the state of Maryland is using mapping technology to show where federal stimulus money is being spent, ironically, it has yet to do the same for the expenditure of funds from its own state coffers. Most information is still viewed by department, not by the geographic area where the money is actually spent. But O'Malley says he wants to move in that direction.

He also says he wants to make the raw data behind all of those pretty maps and charts available to the public as a download that could be imported into Excel, a GIS application or other analytical tools for further analysis (a feature that already offers for all stimulus spending data -- including Maryland's).

However, releasing the raw data behind all state government reporting means the administration will lose control of how results are presented. In the worst-case scenario, the data could be misused or misinterpreted.

But O'Malley says he isn't worried. "I gamble wholly on the notion that people are smart and that, if given the information, [they] will make increasingly better decisions," he says.

Whether StateStat ushers in a new era of openness in government -- or fades with the ARRA reporting requirements -- will likely depend more on politics than on technology.

But O'Malley is optimistic. He points to his successor in Baltimore, who has continued to use CitiStat. "The public saw the value in it. That would have made it difficult to not continue doing it," he says. "Hopefully my successor here will also continue to do that [with StateStat]."

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