“You can’t do the math that way”

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One of the best sources for news reporting about the stimulus is ProPublica. Its staff is particularly savvy about how to dig into the data and seems happy to share its knowledge with journalists elsewhere.

Jennifer LaFleur

ProPublica, which draws its funding from the Sandler Foundation and other contributors, is an independent, non-profit newsroom, created with the purpose of covering “truly important stories, stories with moral force.” It has aggressively covered the stimulus from its passage in February 2009. We recently talked with Jennifer LaFleur, who is director of computer assisted reporting there.

How did ProPublica get started covering the Recovery Act?

In the beginning, there was this huge amount of money and very little coverage. Initiated by our stimulus reporter Michael Grabell, we started pulling together as much data as we possibly could. Before the data was on Recovery.gov, we had to go to individual states to get it. In some states, if you’re not a resident, they won’t provide public records – even though this was federal money.

Early on, we spent a lot of time with the state websites and the state department of transportation sites. Initially, a lot of states looked like they were giving you a lot of information, but they really weren’t. Texas had a pretty page and lots of graphics and flashy things, but it didn’t provide a list of actual recipients. I remember that Washington was a state that did a really good job on its state DOT site.

With all the data on Recovery.gov, is the stimulus a lot easier to cover now?

It is easier, though there is a problem that not all the data is in one place. There’s Recovery.gov and USAspending.gov and there’s duplication in those sites. The information in the latter covers the parts of the stimulus that weren’t intended to create jobs – Section 8 housing money, Small Business Administration loans.

We’ve collected all the data in one place, so we have double the records in our data set that you’d find in Recovery.gov.

What do you think of the Recovery.gov website?

For the speed with which they had to set this up, Recovery.gov is one of the better sites as far as providing information. But it was a very big promise to say we’d be able to follow every dollar. That’s not the case.

In the beginning, there were definitely data quality issues.  There were zip codes that didn’t exist and data entry errors on Congressional districts. They’ve done a pretty good job of fixing the data issues.

Are there improvements you’d make in Recovery.gov?

It’s been responsive and fixed a lot of the big problems that came up early on.

But there is information you’d like to see. They don’t include counties in the data and that’s kind of a standard thing. They have other location information, but people want to look at what money is going to their county. There are some identifier issues I’d fix.  You can connect a project to a prime recipient, who doles out the money to sub-recipients, but you can’t really hook up vendors to sub-recipients.

For example, a reporter called yesterday.  He saw that a sub-vendor in his area was a car dealership and  wanted to know who had hired that car dealer. But the data doesn’t show that.

There’s also no information on anything below sub-recipient. In weatherization, for example, the money goes from the Department of Energy to states and states disperse the money to community action agencies and then they hire contractors to do the work.  The data doesn’t show those relationships.

I know that at some point you have to draw the line on how many levels you go down.

What do you think of the quality of local reporting on the stimulus?

It’s also gotten a lot better. The questions we get from reporters are more sophisticated than they used to be, but understanding the data is still complicated.

I’ve noticed that a few organizations have made the mistake of taking the total project money, dividing by the number of jobs and then writing a story about the $500,000 job. You can’t do the math that way. A lot of the money goes to other things – like buying asphalt or trucks.

Also, when I do training sessions for reporters, I ask how many people have read the recovery bill and nobody raises their hands.

Do you have any other issues with what you read?

There’s a tendency to jump on a problem as if it were a big conspiracy. Early on, there was a perception that a bad zip code was a signal that there was a big conspiracy of money being dumped in bad places. But it was just bad data.

What aspects of the ProPublica coverage are you particularly proud of?

Michael Grabell has done a great deal of very good work. He dug in very quickly. In one example, he found that stimulus money was going to teeny tiny airports in the middle of nowhere and then the DOT  inspector general came out with an advisory that said the same thing.

We’ve put a lot of work on some of the tools on our website. Our Recovery Tracker lets people track down to the county level and Stimulus Speed Chart looks at how fast money goes out the door.

What are your plans for future coverage?

We’ll continue to improve our Recovery Tracker and we likely will develop new interactive tools for covering the stimulus. We’ll also continue to dive into the data to do investigations.

Note:  A late afternoon congratulations to ProPublica, which became the first online non-profit news organization to win a Pulitzer. The award, announced today, was in the investigative journalism category and was shared with The New York Times for an article published in its Sunday magazine last August. The article, by Sheri Fink, dealt with choices faced by doctors at a New Orleans hospital immediately following Hurricane Katrina.

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