Dashboards, Dashboards Everywhere

Originally published November 30, 2009

A little over a year ago, Joe Barbano (USDA) and I coauthored an article on dashboards and business intelligence in government. In it, we touted the importance of dashboards for disseminating to the citizenship important information on what government does with taxpayer money and when and where it does it. Furthermore, we highlighted the grants management dashboards at USDA’s National Institute for Food and Agriculture as an example of what can be accomplished by such a tool.

Now, the Obama Administration’s new IT team has in steady sequence rolled out three very important dashboards that are significant potential sources of much business intelligence. These are:


Let’s take a look at each one and get a sense of what is there and why it is important.

Data.gov

Data.gov was launched in May of this year. Developed by the Federal CIO Council as an interagency Federal initiative, it is hosted by the General Services Administration (GSA), as are the other two federal dashboards mentioned. On its front page, data.gov specifically announces that “The purpose of Data.gov is to increase public access to high value, machine readable data sets generated by the Executive Branch of the Federal Government.” While there is currently a limited number of actual data sets – it counted only 47 when it opened up for business – it has already built up an impressive collection given its scant few months of existence.

The offering is divided into three tabs which are labeled as “catalogs”: 1) Raw Data Catalog, 2) Tools Catalog and 3) Geodata Catalog. The "Raw" Data Catalog provides “an instant download of machine readable, platform-independent data sets,” contributed by various Federal agencies as well as from state and local governments. The Tools Catalog allows you to link to agency tools or web sites that in turn permit you to mine these and other specialized data sets. Lastly, the Geodata Catalog provides access to data sets that contain “trusted, authoritative, Federal geospatial data.”

The site is reasonably attractive and provides easy access to metadata about the data sets. Most important in terms of success, it makes it easy for any agency to contribute its data sets and it invites you to “actively participate in shaping the future of Data.gov by suggesting additional data sets and site enhancements to provide seamless access and use of your Federal data.”

Recovery.gov

This is the official web site for tracking where stimulus package money is going. Under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA), Congress put one trillion dollars in play to serve as a stimulus to the sinking economy. Given the controversy over the legislation and the partisan accusations that have followed, this web site serves the purpose of allowing citizens to track where the money is going and how it’s being spent. Well, at least that is the theory. Right up front it tells us that “Recovery.gov is the U.S. government’s official web site providing easy access to data related to Recovery Act spending and allows for the reporting of potential fraud, waste, and abuse.” And in the site’s banner, Recovery.gov is followed by “TRACK THE MONEY.” This is important since the owner of Recovery.gov is no less an organization than the Recovery, Accountability and Transparency Board, or RAT Board for short, if you can believe the acronym. The RAT Board was named by Congress and consists of twelve Inspectors General from different agencies and is headed by Earl Devaney, the former IG of the Department of the Interior.

The site is an attractive portal and is a first and valiant effort on the part of the Executive Branch in putting their money where their mouth is. You can go in and track where the stimulus dollars have gone, specifying whether in contracts, grants or loans, and by state and distributing agency. The results are displayed in maps where you can basically drill down to the street level. Furthermore, you can request the results based on the reports provided by the dispensing agencies or the recipients of the funds. (You may recall that in a previous article, we spoke of the reporting requirements and what this meant potentially to business intelligence practitioners.)

The Recovery.gov effort has not been without turmoil. First, the site dragged in its initial development and for months was somewhat of a disappointing site with much hype but not much to show. The RAT Board embarked in a revamping of the site that led to a very quick and controversial procurement effort. The Sunlight Foundation hit the process hard and made a fair amount of noise, but ultimately there are at least two sides to every story. The government was under substantial pressure to have the remodeled site in production very quickly and with excellence in order to meet the statutory deadline to start reporting in October. (For more on some of the issues surrounding the procurement, see http://sunlightlabs.com/blog/2009/recoverygov-bid-we-failed/).

Another cause for debate, as was to be expected, has to do with the actual data. This is no fault of Recovery.gov, of course, but sometimes you cannot separate the messenger from the message. Here the issue was around data accuracy and definitions. Estimates of “jobs created” and “jobs saved” generated a lot of arguments over accuracy and definitions. The administration reported 640,000 jobs created or saved but there have actually been substantially less. (See Miscounting of stimulus jobs cuts two ways, claiming that jobs were both under and over counted in the reporting.)

All in all, Recovery.gov has been well done and is performing its mission excellently. I cannot recall another case where the government has been so transparent in its spending and so focused in allowing the citizens to have access to what is being done with their money.

It.usaspending.gov

This dashboard, known throughout the Federal government simply as The IT Dashboard, is the brainchild of the Obama administration’s newly appointed CIO, Vivek Kundra. The site provides citizens, as you can read in the FAQ, “an online window into the details of Federal information technology investments and provides users with the ability to track the progress of investments over time.” You can reach the site directly or through the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) web site. In effect, Vivek sits within OMB and The IT Dashboard  collects its data reports that Federal agencies submit to OMB with respect to their IT investments. This means roughly 7,000 IT projects, including fairly detailed data for the so-called “major” investments for which they have to submit so-called "Exhibit 300s." There are about 800 such projects on which data is collected to track their performance. This data has been collected for many years, but now OMB is living up to the transparency and collaboration mantras of the administration and in turn forces Agency CIOs to pay much closer attention to their projects and the data they report since all of this is up for display and inspection not just by their superiors and peers, but by any taxpayer with access to the Internet.

Projects are scored with a traffic light code where green means “normal,” yellow means “needs attention” and red points to “significant concerns.”

As you enter the site, you are invited to hear an introductory video and are treated to a few news items on Federal IT projects. Then you can investigate any agency and look at its IT portfolio in general or explore the department’s major investments. For the top ten cabinet agencies (DOD, DHS, DHHS, Commerce, Treasury, Transportation, Justice, VA, USDA, and Energy), you can drill directly from the home page. For the long list of “others” you need to go an extra click and specify from a drop-down menu on the next page.

While It.usaspending.gov is not of as much interest to business intelligence (BI) practitioners in general, it is certainly of great interest to the IT community at large. When you look at the magnitude of some Federal IT projects, their mixed bag history in terms of past performance and the increasing reliance of the government on IT to accomplish its mission, The IT Dashboard is a fascinating site.

So there you have it. There is a new administration, and dashboards are cropping up everywhere. This is good. We may have some issues, questions and opinions, but all in all, it is a very good start for a government that aspires to be transparent, collaborative and participative. And this is also good news for BI practitioners since it will provide us with more, and hopefully better, sources with which to work the problems at hand.
  • Dr. Ramon BarquinDr. Ramon Barquin

    Dr. Barquin is the President of Barquin International, a consulting firm, since 1994. He specializes in developing information systems strategies, particularly data warehousing, customer relationship management, business intelligence and knowledge management, for public and private sector enterprises. He has consulted for the U.S. Military, many government agencies and international governments and corporations.

    He had a long career in IBM with over 20 years covering both technical assignments and corporate management, including overseas postings and responsibilities. Afterwards he served as president of the Washington Consulting Group, where he had direct oversight for major U.S. Federal Government contracts.

    Dr. Barquin was elected a National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) Fellow in 2012. He serves on the Cybersecurity Subcommittee of the Department of Homeland Security’s Data Privacy and Integrity Advisory Committee; is a Board Member of the Center for Internet Security and a member of the Steering Committee for the American Council for Technology-Industry Advisory Council’s (ACT-IAC) Quadrennial Government Technology Review Committee. He was also the co-founder and first president of The Data Warehousing Institute, and president of the Computer Ethics Institute. His PhD is from MIT. 

    Dr. Barquin can be reached at rbarquin@barquin.com.

    Editor's note: More articles from Dr. Barquin are available in the BeyeNETWORK's Government Channel

     

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