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Making Stimulus Spending Transparent

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Making Stimulus Spending Transparent

Technology

Making Stimulus Spending Transparent

Making Stimulus Spending Transparent

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New technologies and online tools are helping make that spending more transparent and accountable. But they require input from citizens.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

I'm Robert Siegel. And it's time once again for All Tech Considered.

(Soundbite of music)

SIEGEL: Today we'll have an update on what we heard about last week about Time Warner's efforts to charge its Internet customers based on how much they're surfing and downloading. Also, a device that can shut down your car if you get behind on the payments.

But first, a story about technology and government accountability. President Obama has promised to make it clear how every dollar of stimulus money is being spent. And as NPR's Katia Dunn reports, new technology and online tools are making it a lot easier to follow the money.

KATIA DUNN: Jerry Brito says the administration has been receptive to his ideas about making stimulus spending more transparent. But he thinks not receptive enough.

Professor JERRY BRITO (Fellow, George Mason University): And this money is going out the doors right now, and it's being spent very quickly and it's a lot of money. So we hope that they can get a little faster moving on it.

DUNN: Brito's a fellow at George Mason University. In his fantasy world of government accountability, it wouldn't just be federal agencies or the media watching over recovery spending. What he has in mind is sort of like a combination of Twitter and Wikipedia, where every citizen can report on the stimulus projects in their community.

He started a Web site called stimuluswatch.org. He demonstrates by clicking on a project in Ohio.

Prof. BRITO: For example, the most popular project in Ohio is a CSO WPCS addition treatment. I have no idea what this is. Somebody in Akron, Ohio knows exactly what that is. So they can go in the wiki and explain what is that.

DUNN: Brito says this project could address what he thinks is one of the biggest problems in monitoring the stimulus money. Say the federal government gives California funds to improve education there, California gives it to a school in San Francisco. Officials in both places have to report back about how they spent the money. But what if San Francisco then hires a contractor to build the school?

Prof. BRITO: The trail goes absolutely cold. If contractor X hires 10 subcontractors that in turn hire 20 sub-subcontractors, we don't know anything about this. There is no reporting requirement up.

DUNN: And that, says Brito, is where you get in trouble.

Prof. BRITO: If one wanted to bury some money, that's what you would do. You would wait till you got to the third or fourth or fifth level of reporting.

DUNN: Brito says to get his online watchdog project going, he needs more data, which means cooperation from all levels of government. Brito and his colleagues are not the only people trying to use social media to create government transparency. A similar program using science-related data is in the works.

And recently, Jock Friedly, an open government advocate, created LegiStorm.org. It's a Web site listing the salaries and spending of congressional staffers. Friedly says his online project and others like it have already changed the way money is spent on Capitol Hill.

Mr. JOCK FRIEDLY (LegiStorm.org): If you are a congressional staffer, not only do you need to justify to your boss when you go on a trip, you also have to justify to your next-door neighbor.

DUNN: Of course, the congressional salaries have always been public record. But Friedly said until he put them online, they were buried in file rooms.

Katia Dunn, NPR News, Washington.

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