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Recovery.gov Releases Mobile Apps, But The Accountability Factor May Backfire

Smartronix, the firm behind Recovery.gov’s makeover, has unveiled iPhone and iPad apps that show stimulus-funding recipients by location. The question is whether mobiles apps will be received by spending critics as merely more wasteful spending.

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Editor’s note: Several facts in this story were corrected after publication, and significant changes were made in several of the statements the original draft made. See the comments below for details–T.G.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act poured $787 billion back into our economy. The right seized on that spectacular price tag to help win midterm elections. Post-elections (and leading into the 2012 races), critics have continued to portray the stimulus package as an example of wasteful government spending. And the Obama Administration has sought to justify the stimulus package’s effectiveness ever since. A million dollars has been spent, for example, erecting road signs touting federally funded projects. And the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board, an independent board of 13 inspectors general, was allocated about $18 million by Congress to revamp Recovery.gov, a site dedicated to monitoring stimulus spending.

As a small part of that package, we now have access to a suite of location-based mobile apps to track federal spending on the go. Smartronix, the firm behind part of Recovery.gov’s makeover, recently unveiled the apps for the iPhone and iPad, which show funding recipients by location. 

All awards are displayed on a map as color-coded dots to indicate government contracts, grants, or loans. Users can click on each dot to see the amount awarded, the recipient’s name, and a description for the reward. Users can also report fraud, waste, or abuse at any site with the click of a few buttons.

The goal is to cut through red tape and shine a light on federal spending with high-end tech, but critics will surely wonder whether mobile apps are necessary here, and some may even see this spending tracking suite as another (newfangled, ironic) instance of wasteful spending. 

Hopefully not, Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board communications director Edward Pound tells Fast Company. “The Recovery Board … is not wasting money,” he says, calling special attention to board chairman and inspector general Earl Devaney, an especially prudent handler of taxpayer dollars and former Secret Service agent who helped expose crooked lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Furthermore, the board dedicated a portion of its budget to mobile apps in anticipation of more citizens firing up iPads and iPhones to access this kind of information. 

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But Recovery.gov’s app interface does little to mitigate concern over government spending. Using the app’s location-awareness feature, users can see all nearby funded projects on a map, which is incredibly daunting. When I first opened the app, I saw an overwhelming smattering of dots. I had trouble clicking on a few of the items since so many dots were grouped in the same vicinity. Rather than explain the good the money’s doing, users get a visual metaphor for the size and scope of the stimulus and a feel for how impossible it must be to keep track of it all.

Over $1 million to Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton LLP for coordinating with the Department of Energy Office of General Counsel to provide legal counsel on programmatic aspects of the Advanced Technology Manufacturing Program? Close to $3 million to Verizon to work with the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority to partner with 5 Clean Cities Coalitions and 40 vehicle fleets in New York State to deploy over 300 alternative fuel vehicles? About $25,000 to the Dance Notation Bureau? Almost $300,000 to the Columbia Curriculum Development Center?

The user interface might get in the way of this apps intended purpose, but there is one message it gets across clearly: We’re spending a lot of money.

Follow @fastcompany on Twitter.

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About the author

Austin Carr writes about design and technology for Fast Company magazine.

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