New dashboard shows where federal IT tax dollars go

The U.S. government launches new Web tool, called IT Dashboard, that promises more transparency into its budget for information technology.

It's the age-old question. Where do our tax dollars go? Washington is using the Web to try to provide an answer, at least as it relates to information technology.

The IT Dashboard, a new tool from the USASpending.gov site, promises a behind-the-scenes look at how our tax dollars are spent on government IT. The site was unveiled Tuesday at the Personal Democracy Forum conference in New York by federal Chief Information Officer Vivek Kundra and White House Director of New Media Macon Phillips.

USASpending.gov

A promising idea. But the site, which is still in beta, appears to have a few kinks that need working out. When I tried to access the dashboard late Tuesday morning, I received frequent HTTP error messages telling me it was unable to contact the server. This happened both at the dashboard's home page and at its subpages.

I called the department in Washington responsible for the site. A representative told me the errors were being caused by high traffic on the site but that people were working on the problem. I'll follow up with more details on the site as soon as it's accessible.

Update at 12 p.m. PDT: The Dashboard appeared to be running smoothly after earlier hiccups due to heavy traffic, so I had the opportunity to check it out.

A YouTube video on the home page explains how the site works, which was quite helpful since I wasn't sure where to look at first.

Filled with news, statistics, and charts, the dashboard reveals IT spending across all the major federal agencies. Select any agency, and you can see its budget and spending pattern. For example, according to the site, the Department of Defense chews up the most tax dollars, with a 2009 IT budget of $33 billion.

Your federal IT dollars at work
Your federal IT dollars at work USASpending.gov

An interactive data feed page lets you filter specific types of data by IT project, category, and department to see a spending snapshot. As an example, I retrieved a list of all 37 projects and cost centers for NASA, with descriptions and budgets for each one. An analysis page offers an interactive chart where you can track the rise in IT spending by agency and by year.

Certain facts are especially revealing. I discovered how much money was estimated for a given IT project vs. how much has actually been spent, providing an education in cost overruns.

Certainly, the dashboard is promising more transparency and accountability by publishing the facts and figures behind government IT spending. The site says it receives its data from agency reports on IT spending submitted to the Office of Management and Budget.

The dashboard does lapse into government-speak at times--it refers to IT project spending by agencies as "investments" and the overall amount of money spent as a "portfolio." The data feed page lists Exhibit 53 and Exhibit 300 as data sources, though most people outside the government would have no idea what those mean. (The site's FAQ does explain both terms.)

Also, the information takes a while to gather up and assimilate. I'm not sure how much time the average person would actually spend plowing through a site like this. But given the site's traffic congestion earlier on Tuesday, the dashboard may already be proving more popular than expected.

About the author

Journalist, software trainer, and Web developer Lance Whitney writes columns and reviews for CNET, Computer Shopper, Microsoft TechNet, and other technology sites. His first book, "Windows 8 Five Minutes at a Time," was published by Wiley & Sons in November 2012.

 

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