Stimulus Watch: Your Input Solicited

The folks who run US Budget Watch are interested in your thoughts about how best to redesign their page that watches over the fiscal (and other) stimulus.  Post your comments here.

I’ve already given them some ideas on how to organize and prioritize the data, as well as suggestions about background material that would help reach a broader readership.  More thoughts on style or substance would be greatly appreciated.  They’re on a deadline, so don’t delay.

By Simon Johnson

15 responses to “Stimulus Watch: Your Input Solicited

  1. I would like a graphical way to interact and “drill down” to “follow the money”. Start with a big “800 Billion”, then maybe, “Select a State”, then perhaps a google map of the state with pins on specific projects or contracts that I can click on to learn more – as much as is publicly available.

    So, for example, I start with the huge national pot that maybe divides into “money not allocated”, “money allocated but not yet spent”, and “money spent”. I can go into “money spent”, and click on, say, Ohio. A bunch of tabs show up including one over Columbus which says something like “X million dollars on April 1st for a year’s total compensation package for 25 policemen. Recipients X,Y,Z. Relevant stimulus bill subsection 123(a)(i)”, policemen fired anyway on July 1st while city kept the cash, and so forth. You get the idea.

    Having as detailed as database as possible that captures the final wallet that each dollar of the stimulus, bailouts, and so on falls into will be a highly useful way for analysts, scholars and members of the public to perform their own watchdog and oversight functions. Congress is, apparently, too swamped with other major legislative initiatives to do it.

    It will also help reduce the enormous temptation of political corruption in the distribution of these funds. Imagine if there had been a public “Members of Parliament residence expense accounts” internet database in the UK. Perhaps a few less moat cleanings might have occurred at taxpayer expense.

  2. Heh, a voting system for which line items should be eliminated?

  3. An alternate graphical interface would be ideal. I believe most people are put off by large tables. I would look at data organization and informatics as many websites are now doing. Take a look Mint.com or even Google Analytics tables. It is the same data just re-sliced to provide different ways of looking at it. On the back end the data still exists in the same manner tables. But to the the layman they can now start to look at it in ways that are far more exciting than a four foot long spread sheet.

    It would be brilliant to pair up with the Sunlight labs community. Their goal is the same, getting the information out to the people in the most digestible format possible.

  4. Thanks for the good ideas. Note that input is being solicited by the Committee for the Responsible Federal Budget about their site tracking federal government action, not the site run by the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, which gets into local and state projects.

    This is the site that provided info to The Washington Post noted in “US to Help Investors Buy Bank Assets”:

    “The idea is that banks are unwilling to lend money in part because they fear further losses on past loans now stuck on their books. Government officials said they hope that introducing new buyers will help set a floor for asset prices and stabilize the broader financial system by removing troubled assets from financial firms.

    But the initiative leaves the Treasury’s financial rescue fund nearly tapped out, and with a hostile environment in Congress, administration officials are worried that they might be unable to get more money.

    If the Treasury uses the full $100 billion, it would leave only $12 billion uncommitted from the $700 billion financial rescue package that Congress approved in early October, according to tabulations by the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. In turn, that would leave Geithner with few options to provide emergency capital if a major financial firm finds itself on the verge of failure or the “stress tests” now being conducted on large banks reveal an urgent need.”

  5. Get rid of the cycling photographs of people’s faces – they are meaningless and distracting. Indeed, get rid of all of those names – put them in a link or a separate page on supporters/committee. That list serves nothing but ego. It is awful page design on so many levels, and decreases viewer stay time.

    Get rid of, or reduce the page space allocated to, the extraneous imagery. Or find some way to use subtle imagery that doesn’t eat up the most valuable part of the page. Shrink the US Budget Watch logo and fit it into the left hand navigation bar. Do something to the picture of the white house that doesn’t eat up the first 1.5 inches of vertical space.

    Take the paragraph introduction – move it somewhere else. Maybe an Intro/Background link. You only need to read it once, and then forevermore it’s a distraction.

    Lead off every week with a “Chart of the Week” that is accessible and makes a simple point.

    Put some mouseover descriptions in the tab-links in the left hand navigation bar to tell you where you’re going.

    Consider including a couple “canned” filters to get people started.

  6. One simple thing that would make it clearer is to always label the the year as “FY 2009” if they are referring to the fiscal year.

    On this page, there is no reference to fiscal years, but that’s definitely what they are referring to, right?

    http://www.usbudgetwatch.org/stimulus-2009-making-work-pay-tax-credit

  7. Actually, the words fiscal year don’t seem to be anywhere on the site. Does that mean these are calendar years?

  8. They should use an elastic list, like this:
    http://moritz.stefaner.eu/projects/elastic-lists/NYT/

  9. bungalowbill

    The paucity of comments here says it all. Financial matters are just too boring. The common man cannot watch over what the financial elite is doing.

  10. Are we supposed to take this seriously? I mean get a load of who is on the committee – loyal Repubs like one of GW’s late budget men, homie Representatives, and even an advisor to McCain. While I sympathize with StatsGuy, I disagree. Don’t get rid of the pictures – add Bush I and II, Cheney, Rumsfeld and put more American flags and yellow ribbons in.

  11. Orthogonal Vision

    I question the utility of this exercise. Does anyone really understand how any non-stimulus money percolates through the economy as well as the degree of productivity (in terms of growing the economy)? Just looking at stimulus dollars or overall government spending won’t provide any objective measure of its succes or failure.

    Another issue is the inability to track the influence on overall jobs creation. Take two examples: the 1st is a progam funded by stimulus funds that results in a small number of time limited jobs that create some type of infrastructure that leads to many more jobs from non-stimulus funds; the 2nd is a classical make work program that seeks to maximize the numbers of jobs, but will require state and local support after the federal stimulus runs out, but does not lead to new non-stimulus funded employment. Which program do you believe will receive more attention in terms of being defined as a “successful” stimulus program?

  12. Andrea Matranga

    Those elastic lists look really cool and are surprisingly useful, but I think the learning curve for them might be a little to steep for general consumption. If it’s a canned product and they can be bolted on in a different page at little extra cost, I would say go for it. But I wouldn’t use them as the primary query interface.

    However, I would suggest imitiating a few of the more user-friendly features:

    1. Instead of pulldown menus, all items should be visible simultaneously.

    2. Items should be “AND”able, i.e. multiple items can be clicked on simultaneously in the same category to show multiple types simultaneously.

    It would also be nice to be able to generate a timetable of the events in the query results, with the option of overlaying financial data against it (deficit, interest rates, DJIA, etc).

    There should be the option to add or remove data columns at will. The ability to have at least totals above the columns would also be nice, and ideally there should be options for other summary stats (mean/median, etc).

    StatsGuys comments make a lot of sense. At a minimum, the page should not reload from the top every time a query is submitted, so the user doesn’t have to scroll down to see the results.

  13. Five, no four, no THREE words. Pie charts, graphs. When in doubt–consult Calculated Risk.

  14. Excellent suggestions, StatsGuy!

  15. How about tracking how much stimulus money gets levered into loans by the States, and the factor it is levered up to.
    I have a number of projects that I am working on where the stimulus $ is being offered to municipalities and utilities by the State as low interest loans, but the Cities’ are reluctant to borrow. This means that the money isn’t getting spent, which was the whole point…