Maryland: Leader of the Pack

The state is a pioneer in using Web maps to track government spending and performance.

Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley doesn't have to guess where federal stimulus funds will do the most good in his state: He can see for himself -- and his constituents can, too.

The state has literally mapped out where every dollar from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) is going. The data is displayed at StateStat, a Web site that pulls data from a geographic information system (GIS) that O'Malley's administration originally developed in 2007 to track the performance of state government.

With StateStat in place, "we were well equipped to track those recovery dollars and do so in an open, transparent and measurable way," O'Malley says.

Maryland's pioneering work with GIS and ARRA reporting caught the eye of Earl Devaney, who, as chairman of the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board, pushed for GIS-based reporting on the federal government's new Web site. That site, which relaunched on Sept. 28, uses similar technology to add spending maps. "This is one of the most important features on the whole Web site," says spokesman Edward Pound.

Visitors to Maryland's StateStat Web site can see the total amount of stimulus dollars coming into the state and the counties that are receiving those funds. Projects show up on maps as pushpin-style icons that vary in size with the spending within each area.

Building on templates originally developed for Maryland by GIS vendor Environmental Systems Research Institute Inc. (ESRI), some other states have begun using the same tools to build their own reporting Web sites.

Ranked No. 1

What makes Maryland unique is the breadth and depth of data it provides, says Phil Mattera, research director at Good Jobs First, a Washington-based nonprofit research center that has ranked state Web sites based on how well they disclose expenditures from the $787 billion stimulus bill. Maryland is ranked No. 1.

At StateStat, visitors can view spending within specific categories, such as transportation and housing. From there, they can drill down to see the exact locations and details of specific programs and projects. In some areas, such as transportation, they can see who got the contracts, the winning bid, how far along the project is and the number of jobs each project will create. "Maryland is one of the few that has been doing that," says Mattera.

What's particularly powerful about StateStat is its potential to show visually whether spending matches up with the areas of greatest need. Visitors can view maps with overlays that show both spending data and need levels for every area. The need overlays might include regional unemployment or foreclosure rates, for example. "The maps show us where the problems are and therefore where the opportunities are," O'Malley says. Most states aren't doing that yet, Mattera notes.

Baltimore roots

StateStat, which the O'Malley administration launched shortly after taking office in 2007, is based on a system called CitiStat, whose development O'Malley oversaw when he was mayor of Baltimore. CitiStat was based on CompStat, a statistical reporting system used in New York in the late '90s to fight crime.

StateStat is built on ESRI's ArcGIS server platform. It uses Web services developed by the state as well as the StateStat templates that ESRI built in collaboration with Maryland and other states. ESRI has made those templates available at no charge to any state that wants to use them.

Since many state governments already use ESRI's GIS products, the incremental cost to implement the system is relatively small, says ESRI founder and President Jack Dangermond. Other states, such as Washington and Colorado, have used the templates to build their own reporting sites.

StateStat has the potential to show citizens the return on investment they get from get from government programs, and it could be used to hold agency chiefs accountable, O'Malley says.

During biweekly meetings with department heads, the governor uses GIS maps to track projects and the performance of departments. O'Malley says he uses GIS maps to quickly assess which divisions are performing well and which need new leadership. "That ability to recognize who the leaders are is what gets your entire organization to lean forward. That's what makes it go," he says.

But StateStat is far from perfect. "There's a lot of missing data," says Mattera, especially with regard to specific project details and performance metrics that show the impact of programs, such as the effect of weatherization initiatives on the number of applications for energy assistance.

"The data in there now is not as granular as we want it," says Beth Blauer, director of the StateStat program. But that's just one item on her wish list.

"We are still dealing with a lot of issues as they relate to getting the data into iMap," the ArcGIS server behind StateStat, says Blauer. Those issues include data ownership, accuracy, age, how often data is refreshed and whether it will be meaningful to decision-makers.

Because the state agencies use many different GIS servers and databases, they export data in Excel format and give it to Blauer's staff, who must import it manually. It has been particularly difficult to maintain data integrity and get updates automated, she says.

Another goal is to add performance data that could, for example, illustrate the impact of a program by showing the effect of spending on the unemployment rate.

Blauer says that eventually, StateStat will be used at all levels of government and available to the public. "You'll be able to see where we are spending money in education and whether the test scores are getting better."

She also envisions adding tools to allow public participation online. "They will be able to engage in a dialogue with government using the data," she says. But that may take some time: Blauer has just five people on staff.

While the state of Maryland is using mapping technology to show where federal stimulus money is being spent, ironically, it has yet to do the same for the expenditure of funds from its own state coffers. Most information is still viewed by department, not by the geographic area where the money is actually spent. But O'Malley says he wants to move in that direction.

He also says he wants to make the raw data behind all of those pretty maps and charts available to the public as a download that could be imported into Excel, a GIS application or other analytical tools for further analysis (a feature that already offers for all stimulus spending data -- including Maryland's).

However, releasing the raw data behind all state government reporting means the administration will lose control of how results are presented. In the worst-case scenario, the data could be misused or misinterpreted.

But O'Malley says he isn't worried. "I gamble wholly on the notion that people are smart and that, if given the information, [they] will make increasingly better decisions," he says.

Whether StateStat ushers in a new era of openness in government -- or fades with the ARRA reporting requirements -- will likely depend more on politics than on technology.

But O'Malley is optimistic. He points to his successor in Baltimore, who has continued to use CitiStat. "The public saw the value in it. That would have made it difficult to not continue doing it," he says. "Hopefully my successor here will also continue to do that [with StateStat]."


Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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