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KM provides transparency for stimulus funds

This article appears in the issue July/August 2009, [Vol 18, Issue 7]
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The magnitude of stimulus funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of 2009, combined with mandated requirements for accountability and transparency, has posed significant challenges to organizations that are either distributing or receiving funds. The total amount authorized was $787 billion, not all of which has been distributed. Federal agencies must report on how much funding has been authorized, awarded and spent in each category. States are in the process of allocating the funds to various projects. ARRA requires that expenditures and progress must be tracked and presented on a public Web site.

The states in the best position to get their tracking systems up to speed are those that already have processes and technology in place for tracking expenditures and projects. The Arkansas Department of Education, which is scheduled to receive and spend $569.9 million by fall 2009, will be using IBM’s Recovery Act Performance solution, which is based on IBM Cognos.

"We already had a relationship with IBM Cognos," says Julie Thompson, director of communications for the Arkansas Department of Education, "and had worked with them on other data collection activities."

The tracking tool is specific to ARRA funds and will allow the school districts to report on how they are using the money. A coding system shows which source of money is being used for each project. Title I funding is used to provide academic support for students in lower socio-economic groups, to close the achievement gap. The amount of the stimulus funding to be allocated to Title I was based on a formula determined at the federal level. Other portions of the funding can be used for repairs and renovations but must be tracked separately. The public will be able to view each school district, as well as the name of the project, the amount of funding and the amount spent to date.

Projects were designed to have a lasting impact. "School districts have told us of plans to convert empty classrooms to state-of-the-art science labs," Thompson says, "and to train teachers in new approaches to sharing information to improve teaching techniques to be more data-driven and collaborative."

Arkansas was fortunate in that its teacher salaries were already covered, so the state was able to use the new funding for projects to improve student performance. "We will be able to run a report every two weeks that lets us know how much to reimburse the school’s project," says Thompson, "and will pull information to report to the federal government on our spending."

The IBM Recovery Act performance system includes key indicators such as job creation and can compare program effectiveness to that of other states. A dashboard summarizes performance management to measure the success of the programs.

"IBM has made a strong commitment to helping government leaders manage their economic recovery requirements," says Rob Dolan, an executive in IBM’s BI and performance management group. "The Arkansas system allows information to feed in from 260 schools and indicate which projects are on time and which may be at risk."

Building on GIS resources

Oregon has deployed a stimulus tracking Web site and built an application called The Oregon Stimulus Transparency and Accountability Tracking System (ORSTATS) that are being used to monitor ARRA stimulus funds. ORSTATS was originally developed to track Oregon’s state stimulus package, Go Oregon, which is focused on capital construction and deferred maintenance projects for public buildings. With ARRA coming soon, the state saw potential for using the same tracking Web site and system to provide a transparent view of how both state and federal stimulus dollars are being spent across Oregon.

The Oregon stimulus tracking Web site relies heavily on geographic information system (GIS) resources that the state has developed over a number of years. With a combination of hardware, software, data and skilled staff in place, the state was well positioned to respond to the requirement for transparency.

"The predecessor to ORSTATS was developed a few years ago by the Oregon Department of Transportation (DOT) for tracking and reporting of funds related to the Oregon Transportation Investment Act," says Sean McSpaden, deputy state CIO of Oregon. "Having this system and its resources in place meant we were able to set up ORSTATS in weeks rather than months."

The Web site presents a breakdown of the $3.9 billion in ARRA funds that Oregon will receive through formula and demand-based funding, along with the various nationally competitive grants. Those funding opportunities are grouped into various federal program areas (e.g. transportation, public safety, education, etc.). A map of Oregon allows users to click on a county and view a pie chart that shows the known allocation of the funds by source program area and funding sub-category.

"The tracking map provides an effective way to visualize the funds Oregon is receiving," McSpaden says. "The ability to show taxpayer dollars at work is an important part of our commitment to stimulus funding transparency across Oregon’s 36 counties."

The mapping application template was developed by Environmental Systems Research Institute (ESRI) and is a key component of the state’s recovery Web site. It is supported by the ESRI ArcGIS Server for the manipulation of spatial datasets. The data for tracking project expenditures are entered and maintained using a secure Web interface and are stored in a robust Microsoft SQL Server database environment. The other core components of the system are an IBM Websphere portal; Adobe Flex API, which facilitates dynamic data displays on the Web site; and a report generation tool, LogiXML. Web content management is provided by Interwoven’s (acquired by Autonomy) TeamSite and SitePublisher.

Adobe Flex and ESRI’s GIS solutions are used in many of the states’ recovery Web sites. Adobe Flex Builder, which is part of the Adobe Flash Platform, is a development environment for building rich Web applications and, like the Adobe Reader, provides a free runtime viewer.

"Government agencies have large amounts of data and want to make it available to citizens," says Greg DeMichillie, director of product management for developer tools at Adobe. "Since 99 percent of PCs have the Flash player, agencies can be sure that users will be able to access the information presented on the site." Flex allows development of interactive applications, such as those in which placing a cursor over a map presents associated numerical data.

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