FindTheBest makes U.S. contract data accessible–and previews the transformation the DATA Act might bring


This guest post by Nina Quattrocchi, a senior product associate at FindTheBest, explains how FindTheBest adds value to currently-available U.S. federal spending data–and how the DATA Act could deliver more accurate, more complete information for FindTheBest to publish for citizens’ use. FindTheBest is a Startup Member of the Data Transparency Coalition.

With the enactment of the DATA Act one month ago earlier this week, FindTheBest is anxious to see the transformation of federal spending data.

There have been previous pushes to bring transparency to government spending. In 2007, USASpending.gov was launched in response to the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act’s (FFATA) requirement to create a website with free and searchable information on all Federal awards.Though USASpending.gov was a good start, it is difficult to navigate and challenging to make sense of. USASpending focuses on individual transactions which makes it impossible to look at an entire contract, grant, or loan since they often encapsulate multiple transactions. These shortcomings result from the government’s failure, so far, to adopt consistent data standards to identify awards, recipients, and programs. Additionally, USASpending.gov is incomplete. FFATA dealt with grant and contract data but ignored administrative spending, so the website doesn’t illustrate the full government spending lifecycle.

USASpending.gov simply doesn’t bring full clarity to federal spending, which is where the DATA Act comes in. The new law requires government-wide data standards to make the whole structure of federal spending fully searchable. It also expands the scope of spending transparency to include administrative spending as well as grants and contracts.

We’re Starting Now

FindTheBest is eager to take advantage of the new data standards and broader scope to deliver more accurate, more detailed, and more complete federal spending information to Americans. But we’re not waiting for the DATA Act to take effect to get started. Here’s what’s already happening.

FindTheBest is a research engine headquartered in Santa Barbara, California that gives people detailed information on 2,000 topics so they can research with confidence. We recently created a product that included profiles for the more than 30 million registered companies in the United States. As we were working on this project, we realized that the interactions between companies and the government was often unclear. We decided that we could use the FindTheBest platform and data aggregation technology to shed light on these relationships. Since this realization, I have been focused on developing a suite of content that revolves around government spending: how much the U.S. government is spending, what they’re buying, and who they’re buying from. So far, we’ve built Government Contracts, Government Contractors, Open Grants, and Contract Opportunities. We’re currently in the process of building Government Grants & Loans and Agency Spending.

Total Contract Dollars by State in 2013 | FindTheBest

The entire suite will be built from government data. Right now, we’re using data from USASpending.gov, Grants.gov, and FedBizOpps.gov. My ultimate goal is to detail the full lifecycle of government spending — from taxpayer dollars, Congressional appropriation, Treasury allocation and agency obligation to payout. This is impossible with the current data landscape, but the DATA Act will help by improving current data and making additional data available.

Digging into Government Data

USASpending.gov, currently the main government spending data resource, is well-intentioned, but it still fails to be a clean and publicly accessible source of data on government expenditures. A site like FindTheBest is needed to truly understand the information, but it’s not always easy to work with government data. There are three main issues that we’ve run into with government data, spending-related and otherwise:

  1. The data is messy. The database includes errant numbers or characters at the beginning and end of words and contractor names and cities are often cut short. We’ve done our best to clean up the data, but with 35 million transactions, it’s hard to catch every mistake.
  2. A lot of the data is incorrect. We’ve found many contracts with incorrect transaction dates, which results in listings like this Federal Prison System contract that states a completion date of 5008, indicating that the transaction spans more than 3,000 years. Additionally, we’ve found that much of the pricing information on USASpending.gov is out of date and incorrect. Data for current contract value and ultimate contract value are often neglected or misstated because they’re not used as often as the obligation amount to value the contract. In our government contracts topic, we make sure to explain the reason why the current or ultimate values are wrongfully stated as $0.
  3. USASpending.gov doesn’t include what we consider the most important data point — the outlay, which is the actual amount paid by the government to the contractor or grantee. This amount is crucial to government spending transparency. This data is collected but it’s not displayed on USASpending.gov. We filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to obtain the information so we can add it to our government contract content but haven’t had any success.

There are some upsides to working with government data. Most importantly, it’s free. Additionally, while it may seem that I’m quick to criticize USASpending.gov, working with their development team has been great. They are quick to respond to technological and data issues concerning their site. When I reported an error I found in their API, they fixed it the next day.
Looking Ahead
Even with the constraints of working with limited and error-ridden government data, we’re developing a suite of government spending data that we’re proud of. We’ve worked hard to explain relevant data points, appropriately cite the source and flag examples where the data might contain errors. At the same time, we make sure all of our content is constantly being updated to provide users with access to the best information. The passage of the DATA Act will allow us to build even better, more accurate, and more complete government spending resources for our users. For now, we’ll continue molding USASpending.gov, Grants.gov, and FBO.gov data into digestible content that allow anyone to make sense of government spending.