on april 3, the OMB has published
Updated Implementation Guidance for the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, replacing the 62 pages of the initial guidance with 175 pages of more detailed guidance.
from the information architecture point of view, this is a major step backwards. when the initial guidance was published, the official OMB position was that the email-based reporting would only be an intermediary step, and that eventually, feeds would be the only way how information would flow. this not only would have been an amazing step towards building a loosely coupled federal information architecture, it also would have assured that the same information made available to the OMB could have also be consumed by anybody else interested in this data.
we were very excited to see the government making such a bold step, and not only prepared a pretty detailed report suggesting more detailed guidelines for the final feed architecture, but also started following the available feeds as well as the reports made available on
recovery.gov. our tracking of the reports available through feeds vs. the reports available through
recovery.gov did not look to promising, though, and the new guidelines make clear why this is the case.
appendix 1 of the new guidelines contains the same underspecified feed guidelines that were part of the initial guidance, and the document as a whole makes it very clear that feeds are optional, and even if they are provided, they can be RSS or Atom, there is no specification of how the data should be included in the feed, there is no requirement for paged or archived feeds, and there is no requirement for feed discovery. given all of this, feeds may not be prohibited by the new guidelines, but they certainly do not help at all to make feeds a reliable or robust source of information.
instead, now it's back to the good old silo approach, which ironically was also championed by the NGOs participating in the process. it seems that the superficial convenience of a centralized silo is preferred over true transparency, which by its very definition would mean to be able to look inside and beyond a silo. the NGOs clearly missed this unique opportunity to get true transparency from the government, by focusing on the convenience of a single provider from which they can get all their information, instead of praising the federated approach and helping with making it work. i am still very confused by how the term
transparency is often used in this context: a centralized architecture is the very opposite of transparency; it may be open (and let's hope it will be open), but it is completely opaque.
the new guidance definitely is a big step backwards, and it is understandable why this happened. implementing such a federated feed-based architecture would have been very challenging, and would have required fairly sophisticated information architecture. so from the OMB point of view, it is quite clear why the centralized approach is now being favored. From the NGO's point of view, however, it really was not the smartest move to ask for a convenient short-term one-stop-shop, instead of recognizing that this could be a landmark shift in how information architecture is designed and exposed in the federal government.
with many things renamed and redesigned, we will now have to revise our Stimulus Feed Tracking site. but we can now probably stop tracking the few feeds actually available through agency sites, because they will remain a small fraction of all reports available. the new guidelines say nothing about the availability of information on
recovery.gov, so we assume that we will continue to see only weekly reports, and no major communications and no funding reports. it will be interesting to see when this data is made available, because it is already being reported to the OMB. but since reporting is now implemented through publicly invisible channels (email and maybe a web-based submission interface in the future), it is impossible to get to that information (and our stimulus feed tracker does not show a lot of activity in the publicly available major communications and formula block grant allocation feeds).
data.gov go online, it will be interesting to see how the report data is made available. will it be the original speadsheets? XML? RDF? XHTML+RDFa? will we get feeds for all data? it still strikes me as weird that
recovery.gov is a completely feed-free zone, even though drupal (which is what
recovery.gov is using) has feed modules and all that would be required would be to simply throw a switch and make some feeds available; since we apparently cannot get reports via feeds, can we at least get the news as a feed?
[[ update april 8, 2009: i have received some comments saying that page 68 of the guidance states that
agencies are required to provide a feed. but i would argue that the guidance not even makes discoverability of the feeds mandatory, let alone specifies a way in which these feeds, if they were discoverable, could serve as a reliable source of information. our