In response to some of the questions we've had from reporters about culling data from the government's stimulus Web site, Recovery.gov, we're starting a tipsheet. We've been encouraging readers to write in with questions and their own tips.

Our stimulus-covering friend, Sarah Cohen, is a journalism professor at Duke University's Sanford School of Public Policy. Cohen offers some important guidance below:

What’s the difference between “agency reported” and “recipient reported” data?

Recovery.gov lets you look at data as reported by the agency or as reported by the recipient. Understanding the flow of money -- and the flow of data -- can help you pick which one to use.

  • Agency summary reports:

    These are the weekly reports shown as spreadsheets on Recovery.gov when you choose to download “Agency Reported Data” from the Download Center on the FAQ page. The spreadsheets have several pages -- the one that shows spending gives the direct amount spent by the agency on stimulus-related projects. It includes all spending, including salaries for employees, grants, loans and contracts, but has very little detail -- usually only to the state level.
  • Agency-reported data:

    This is the data you see if you click on the “Agency Reported” tab on the home page map. This, too, is money flowing directly from a federal agency, often to state governments that will then distribute it to their own contractors or localities. Recovery.gov has removed the option to download this data.

    Contracts here come from the Federal Procurement Data System, which provides a spreadsheet of stimulus contracts updated weekly.

    Grants and loans come from USAspending.gov, and are updated every few weeks, though some agencies are usually slow. The government limits you to downloading 1,000 of these at a time. Go to “Advanced Search for Recipients,” then choose the Recovery Act under “Business Fund Indicator” at the bottom.

    Some spending is dropped out here, notably salaries for federal employees, such as inspector general’s staff and census workers.
  • Recipient reports:

    Every quarter, the recipients of grants, loans and contracts have to report on the money they received and where they spent it. These are the reports that show up if you click on the “Recipient Reported” tab on the home page map.

    Not every program is included in the recipient reports. Generally, if a state gets money from the federal government and gives it directly to people rather than other organizations, it doesn’t have to report what happened. This knocks out large stimulus programs such as unemployment insurance and Medicaid.
  • Sub-recipient reports:

    Either the recipient or the organization that got money from it has to report how much it has gotten. There is very little information at this “sub-recipient” level, but it does give you the key things everyone wants – a locality and an amount of money that has been spent. In return, though, you lose yet more of the money at this level: Anything done directly by the recipient’s employees, for example, is excluded. So a state hiring prison guards isn’t in the sub-recipient data – the money trail ends in the state capital, even if those guards are in different local areas.

What are the different amounts in the reports?

Depending on which report you look at, you might see "obligations," money "available," "outlays," "award amount" or "expended." Here are some guidelines about what these mean:

  • “Obligations” and ”available” are often used interchangeably. The terms refer to money that the agency has committed to a specific project and a specific recipient, but may not have actually paid yet. It’s the equivalent of hiring a contractor to fix your kitchen: you won’t pay until the work is done, but you have to put aside that money, and you will have to pay it unless something goes horribly wrong. In turn, the contractor orders supplies and starts working without having been paid for the end product. All of the “agency-reported” data from the two standard systems (Federal Procurement Data System and USAspending.gov) are obligations. The agency reports that say “available” are also obligations. State governments can spend obligated money before the Treasury has actually moved dollars into their accounts.
  • “Outlays” are the amounts the federal government has actually paid in hard money.
  • Award amount: These are supposed to be the flip side of obligations, reported by the first recipient, but the government wasn’t that clear on what the recipients should report, so it could be somewhat garbled.
  • Expended: This is the amount that a recipient has actually paid to some other organization or to employees.

Which dollar figure should I use?

It is really up to you, and depends on what you want to do. If you want the most local information available, you’d use the award amount from sub-recipients and the remaining amount expended from the prime recipients in your area.

Measuring economic impact is harder. For instance, unemployment insurance probably doesn’t help the economy much until the jobless person actually gets a check. But a contractor can start hiring and paying workers on the promise of money from the government.

How can I get the reports for my county or metro area?

Right now, it’s not in reported data from recipients or sub-recipients. Instead, the ZIP code of the “place of performance” is listed in the database.

On the map, you can choose “Funding” on the upper right, then choose “County” and zoom in on your county. (This is for either recipient- or agency-reported data). Unfortunately, that’s all you can do – you can’t drill in right now to see what those contracts and grants are, or where the money is coming from. Instead, you can sort the downloadable Excel files by ZIP code to get the ones in your area.