A Web-Based Tool to Follow the Stimulus Dollars

A Web-Based Tool to Follow the Stimulus Dollars

Marc Gunther interviews Onvia CIO Eric Gillespie in a podcast conversation, "Tracking the Stimulus Spending with Recovery.org," that's available here. 

There are two places on the Internet where you can find out how the $787-billion stimulus package is being spent. One is run by the federal government. The other by a West Coast tech company. Care to guess which does a better job?

Yes, it's recovery.org, which despite its dot-org suffix, is run by a company called Onvia (Nasdaq: ONVI) based in Seattle, which is tracking thousands of stimulus projects at the state, county and local level, from building a transit center in Washtenaw, Michigan, to decommissioning nuclear facilities in South Carolina.

Then there's recovery.gov, the federal site that "offers little beyond news releases, general breakdowns of spending, and acronym-laden spreadsheets and timelines," as the Washington Post put it. But don't worry, the government is on the case. An office set up to oversee the stimulus (with a budget of $84 million) has about 30 employees, plus outside contractors, working to revamp the site, the newspaper said. "We have four and a half years to turn this thing into its final product," Earl E. Devaney, the former inspector general now in charge of oversight, told The Post. No, I'm not making this up.

To be sure, recovery.org and recovery.gov have different purposes. While the government side is designed for taxpayers, and intended to provide oversight of stimulus outlays, the Onvia-built site is primarily intended for small, mid-sized and big companies that want a shot at government contracts. That's been Onvia's business since it was founded in 1995.

Eric Gillespie, Onvia's chief information officer, told me that the company set up recovery.org as a free website to advertise itself to potential customers. It sells the rest of its data by subscription.

"If you look at the total volume of projects that the government undertakes in a year, stimulus projects represent only about 2 percent of the total," Gillespie told me recently by phone. (You can listen to a podcast of our conversation at Greenbiz.com.) "The other 98 percent, we keep behind the screen."

"We cover every vertical-architecture, engineering, construction, information technology, health care, energy, renewable energy, water," Gillespie says. "If you are a computer hardware manufacturer, and you'd like to know, for the last five years, every laptop purchase in K-12 by geography, by model and by price, we can tell you what percentage was Mac, what percentage was Lenovo, what was Dell, and you can do a lot of price sensitivity analysis around that. I can tell you the price of fuel oil that every government entity has paid, by geography, across a time line, for 10 years.

So, for example, businesses can compete to repair a "cool roof" at Edwards Air Force Base in California, install solar hot water heaters at a Department of Labor office in Miami, or provide weatherization services through the Department of Human Services in Vermont.

Those are not typical examples, as it happens. Because I'm writing for Greenbiz.com, I went looking for clean energy and environmental projects. Most of the projects, for now, appear to be road and bridge resurfacing and construction projects , perhaps because they are "shovel-ready."

Onvia gathers its data using a combination of sophisticated and old-fashioned shoe leather. Most of it comes from data searches of the websites of state and local governments, school districts, water and sewer authorities and the like. About 89,000 government entities generate projects and requests for proposals, according to Gillespie.

Those not online are found through research, including calling government offices and reading public notices. The company has about 60 to 80 people doing research. "The only way to get that information is to get a local newspaper, scan it and plug it into the database," Gillespie says. "We literally get hundreds of newspapers at the office." (At least someone's still buying papers.)

A dot-com survivor, Onvia generated about $21.1 million in revenue in 2008. The election of Barack Obama as president should drive those numbers higher.

Gillespie says: "There's been a dramatic shift of power to D.C. with the legislation, the bailouts, everything that's come forward in the last six months, and that helps our business."