In 2007, USASpending.gov was launched in response to the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act’s requirement to create a website with free and searchable information on all Federal awards using data provided by Federal Agencies through the Federal Procurement Data System, Federal Assistance Award Data System, Smart Pay and the Census Bureau.
The problem is that while the U.S. government has been providing free award data since 2000, the website is difficult to navigate and challenging to make sense of. USASpending.gov focuses on individual transactions which makes it impossible to look at an entire contract since they often encapsulate multiple transactions. Additionally, details vary from transaction to transaction, meaning it’s hard to obtain information about specific contractors whose names can vary slightly on each individual contract. For an average user, USASpending.gov simply doesn’t bring the clarity to federal contracts that it was supposed to. This is where FindTheBest.com can help.
FindTheBest — a technology startup in Santa Barbara, Calif., gives people everything they need to confidently research across thousands of topics. One of our recent projects was to create a product that included profiles for the more than 30 million registered companies in the U.S. As we were building it, we realized that the operations between private companies and the U.S. government was often unclear. We decided that we could use the FindTheBest platform and data aggregation technology to shed light on these relationships that exist between private companies and the U.S. government. Since this realization, our focus has been on developing a suite of content that revolves around government data, specifically how much the U.S. government is spending, what they’re buying and who they’re buying from. This suite of content currently includes three main topics: government contracts, government contractors and government agencies.
Our government contracts topic, which is currently live on the site, includes more than 8 million government contracts. The government contractors and government agencies topics are currently in development and we’re also considering adding federal grants and loans to the site in the near future.
The creation of USASpending.gov was well-intentioned, but it still fails to be a clean and publicly accessible source of data on government expenditures. A site like FindTheBest is needed to truly understand the information, but it’s not always easy to work with government data. There are three main issues that we’ve run into with government data:
The first is that the data is incredibly messy. The database includes random numbers or characters at the beginning and end of words and contractor names and cities are often cut short. We’ve done our best to clean up the data, but with 35 million transactions, it’s hard to catch every mistake.
The second issue is that we’ve found a lot of the data is incorrect. We’ve found many contracts with incorrect transaction dates, which results in transactions like this Federal Prison System contract which states a completion date of 5008, making the transaction more than 3000 years long. Our government contracts topic groups single transactions into contracts to help people see the complete picture when it comes to relationships between private companies and the U.S. government. Additionally, we’ve found that much of the pricing information on USASpending.gov is out of date and incorrect. Data for current contract value and ultimate contract value are often neglected or misstated because they’re not used as often as the obligation amount to value the contract. In our government contracts topic, we make sure to explain the reason for these discrepancies when the information for current or ultimate values are wrongfully stated as $0.
The last overarching issue is that USASpending.gov entirely omits what we consider the most important data point in any government contract — the outlay. The outlay is the actual amount paid by the government to its contractor. This amount is crucial to government contract transparency. This data is collected, it’s just not displayed on USASpending.gov. We recently filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with the U.S. Treasury Department to obtain the information so we can add it to our government contract content.
It may seem that I’m quick to criticize USASpending.gov, but working with their development team has been a wholly positive experience. They are quick to respond to technological and data issues concerning their site. When I reported an error I found on their API, I was surprised to see that they fixed it the very next day. Their intentions with this site are good and I hope to continue working with them in the future.
Here at FindTheBest, we’ve developed a suite of government spending data that we can say we’re proud of; we’ve worked hard to explain relevant data points, appropriately cite the source and flag examples where the data might contain errors. At the same time, we work to make sure all of our content is constantly being updated to provide users with access to the best information. If our FOIA request goes through and the USASpending.gov site improves the quality of the data it displays, it will allow us to build even better, more accurate government spending resources for our users. For now, I’ll continue molding USASpending.gov data into digestible content that allow anyone to make sense of government spending.
Nina Quattrocchi is a Product Associate at FindTheBest, a technology startup that gives people everything they need to confidently research across thousands of topics. Her recent focus has been building a suite of content around government spending. Nina is a graduate of Duke University where she obtained a B.A. in public policy. You can reach Nina at email@example.com
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