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Tools and Resources for Reporting the Stimulus

Since launching the ProPublica Reporting Network and its first initiative – Adopt a Stimulus Project –we've been hearing from members and local reporters trying to keep track of how federal stimulus dollars are being spent in their communities. The stimulus is one of the largest spending bills in our nation's history, and following $787 billion as it flows through the economy can be a daunting task. What follows are answers to some questions we've been asked so far. Warning: This is not the be-all-end-all guide to reporting on the stimulus. But it should help get you started.

Have more questions? Send them our way. We'll answer them – or find someone who can.  Do you have better answers? Include them in the comment section below or e-mail Amanda

Is there any one site where I can find out what projects are going on in my community?

There is no one-stop shop yet., the federal government's Web site devoted to tracking the stimulus, promises to eventually have detailed data about projects, contractors and jobs. But federal officials say it probably won't get there until October at the earliest. For now, it charts how much agencies have spent or are in the process of spending. It also lists how much each state has been promised for most stimulus programs. (Keep in mind, though, that some numbers on the site don't always add up with other publicly available figures.)

Until gets up to speed, these resources will come in handy:

Every federal agency has a Web page dedicated to the stimulus, listed here.

Several of them have done a good job posting their projects. The Departments of Agriculture and Housing and Urban Development, for example, have a joint interactive map where you can see what projects are going on by county. It's so detailed that you can see which apartment complexes got money and which rural dams are being fixed. The Transportation Department has an interactive map too, but it's harder to use.

To identify transportation and infrastructure projects, your best bet is an Excel spreadsheet posted on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Web site. It lists 7,100 highway, airport, federal building and flood-control projects funded by the stimulus. You can also use the data on our Adopt a Stimulus Project page, which provides a list of transportation projects that have received the green light from the feds; this chart gets updated weekly.

Each state has also set up a stimulus Web site. Here's our list of state sites and the type of information on each. Usually, each state has a list of transportation projects, but if it's not there, check your state transportation department's site. The projects on the state stimulus sites generally are proposed projects and haven't necessarily been approved by the federal government.

Where can I find out what companies have won stimulus contracts?

The federal government has a database of thousands of stimulus contracts that have been awarded so far. You can search by city or county and see if any local companies have won contracts. However, it includes only federalprojects and doesn't contain the thousands of highway and bridge projects that are contracted at the state level. Some states – such as New York, New Hampshire, Texas and Colorado (PDF) – have listed contractors on their Web sites, but most have not.

A private Web site,, tracks federal, state and local contracts and bids. It's easy to use and allows you to sort by city and county, which makes it a great place to start. It says it's tracking more than 28,000 projects worth $72 billion. But it doesn't have everything and sometimes counts duplicates in its totals.

Is there a site that lists how many jobs have been created and saved?

First things first. The federal government's estimate that the stimulus will create or save 3.5 million jobs is based on a bit of economic guesswork, which we explained back in February. The Obama administration used the same calculations to declare in late May that the stimulus had created or saved 150,000 jobs so far  and will create or save 600,000 more by the end of the summer. Early on, while trying to rally support for the stimulus, the Obama administration broke down predicted job numbers by state and congressional district.

Counting actual jobs is much harder. Starting in October, all recipients of stimulus money (federal agencies, states, transit authorities, etc.) are required to report how many jobs have been created or saved by each project. Here is the formula they must use to count jobs. It takes into account only direct jobs, as opposed to the additional retail employees, waiters and such whose jobs are created or saved because people have more money to spend. The administration's job estimates include indirectly created jobs, so the job numbers posted on may be lower than those.

For now, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee has posted how many jobs each state (PDF) has created and saved with infrastructure projects. Some states might be able to provide figures broken down by city or county.

You can also call the companies awarded individual stimulus projects in your area and ask them how many people they hired or retained for the job. A few suggestions: Most construction companies do not hire people for specific projects; they hire people based on how much total work they have planned that season. That's because most construction workers perform a specific job or set of duties, and they rotate from site to site. So, when you call a construction company to ask how many jobs they created or saved, make sure to ask if the people were hired after the company received stimulus funding. Also ask if the company will retain them after the stimulus-funded work is over. You should also find out if the construction company subcontracted work to other companies, in which case you should call them, too.

How can I compare my state's stimulus spending to other states'?

There are several ways to do this. If you happen to live in the District of Columbia or any of the 16 states being monitored by the Government Accountability Office, you can find comprehensive 40-page reports on your state's progress on the GAO's site every two months. (Here's the full 736-page July report (PDF).)

All states had to obligate at least 50 percent of their stimulus money for road and bridge projects by June 29. ("Obligate" means they decide how to spend the money and the U.S. Transportation Department reviews their proposals. Here's the DOT's tally of how much each state had obligated.) Keep in mind, however, that this deadline applied only to the money controlled by state governments – not the 30 percent of highway funding that passes through the states to local governments. (See our explainer on this and a chart tracking the states' spending on road and bridge projects.) States must obligate the rest of their money by March 1, 2010.

Another question we get from reporters a lot is how their state stimulus Web sites compare to others. Here's our list of the state sites and what kinds of information they provide. The STAR Coalition, a group of public interest groups focused on the stimulus, has also put together profiles of each state's stimulus Web site and accountability efforts.

What are some key accountability questions?

*How is the stimulus money being distributed? The New York Times reported that cities are getting short shrift in road money so far.

*Is the stimulus going to areas where it's most needed? The Associated Press found that many highway projects are in counties with low unemployment rates.

*Is the stimulus fixing things that aren't used that much? The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel cited several little-used bridges getting stimulus money.

*What's the record of the company that received the stimulus contract? We found that some stimulus contractors had a history of environmental, safety and other problems. Here's our tip sheet on performing a background check.

*Is any public official personally benefiting from the project? The Federal Highway Administration recently revoked stimulus funding from a Washington state road project after finding that the county road engineer owned property near the road and profited from selling the county right of way.

*Does the project appear to be wasteful or a pet project?  There have been numerous stories to this effect. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., compiled 100 of them into a report (PDF), which the Obama administration called "dead wrong" and rebutted in its own report (PDF). The Recovery Act banned state and local officials from spending money on casinos, golf courses, swimming pools, aquariums and zoos. But we found that rule doesn't apply to the feds.

*Did the project start and finish on time?

*Will the project cost more than the contract? The spokesman for the Georgia Department of Transportation told us that 40 percent of Georgia's transportation projects cost more than expected last year. If this happens, find out what caused the price increase. Was the original estimate sound? How will the local or state government foot the bigger bill?

*How is the local or state government monitoring the project? Has it hired inspectors or sent government officials to the scene? If so, how many people and how often do they visit the project?  Have these inspectors ever worked with the company or government before?

How can we work with local citizens to track the stimulus money?

Soon we'll be launching a social networking site where you'll be able to, for example, link to your reporting and ask people to help you monitor local projects. We can also introduce you to people participating in our Adopt a Stimulus Project initiative. The best thing to do is to provide us with a short list of the projects you want to watch most closely, and we'll e-mail members in the area.

You can also use our projects as a template for local citizen journalism projects. Everything we produce is licensed through Creative Commons. For an example, just look to C. Duncan Pardo, the editor of the Raleigh Public Record, which monitors stimulus projects in Wake County, N.C., through our Adopt a Stimulus Project initiative.

Anything else? We have set up a mailing list for reporters tracking the stimulus. E-mail [email protected] to be added to it.

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