Steve Katz, the vice president for strategy and development over at Mother Jones, is tracking a stimulus project as part of ProPublica's Adopt a Stimulus Project. His first assignment was to identify his project's start date and make sure he understands what the project entails. It turns out that our first assignment can be tougher than expected. At Mother Jones, Steve documents what he has discovered about the project identified by the federal Department of Transportation as "CALIFORNIA_Transportation_Q101155":
On Tuesday July 7 I confirmed that the ProPublica listing of this project matches the California Department of Transportation project list shown on the CalDot website. I then emailed the California Department of Transportation general address to find out the exact location of this project, and project start date (the location given in the d/b is truncated, so it could be just about anywhere). No response so far.
On the same date, I also contacted the Marin County Department of Public Works and spoke with 3 people in the department, each of whom had a different explanation for what this project was. One person said that the County was awaiting approval by the California DOT for project go-ahead; the second said that he was unaware of any ARRA funds being used in this part of the county for transportation improvements; the third said that these funds were being rolled into a much larger highway widening/bike path rerouting project that had been originally funded by State of California bonds, but suspended due to the State’s budget crisis.
Further on in his post, Steve discusses the full range of responses he's gotten from the California Department of Transportation. His report highlights one of the challenges facing the public and press: The stimulus itself is gradually unfolding, and its implementation is decided day to day at the local, state and federal level. And, as it turns out, sometimes getting answers to the most basic questions is more challenging than expected.
In addition to tracking individual projects like "CALIFORNIA_Transportation_Q101155" ProPublica is collecting accounts and insights by its members as they monitor local stimulus projects. Their experiences, I believe, will provide us useful information in evaluating the administration's technological prowess at making the stimulus transparent from the ground up. After all, isn't the most useful test whether reasonably well-informed people with some time on their hands can get answers to some basic questions?
In the meantime, you can follow Steve's stimulus adventures over at Maimonides' Ladder, his personal blog, or document your own experiences. Just send them to me at [email protected] or publish them straight to your blog, MySpace page or Facebook profile (and send me the link). We're putting in a call to California's DOT to get its response.