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Making sense of stimulus data

If you really want to make sure your tax dollars are being well-spent, you'll be happy to hear that there's more data available on stimulus spending than there ever has been before, on any federal program.

It's all right there at www.recovery.gov — but that's also the problem. The data comes in a spreadsheet that includes dozens of columns listing information that's a mix of useful, confusing and irrelevant. Oh, and there are thousands of lines of data.

Thanks to the Microsoft Access database program and an insistent editor who didn't mind me going missing for days to dive deep into the data, I think I made sense of it for Buffalo-area readers in my story in Sunday's edition of The News.

But it wasn't easy. And in the end, the data will only be as good as the hundreds of people who typed in the data entries at all the entities that received stimulus money. And judging from the many errors I found in the data, I must admit I'm worried about what I might have missed.

So this is transparancy in government in the computer age. There's no doubt it's better than secrecy, but as I culled through thousands of sometimes erroneous and often irrelevant data, I couldn't help but think: too much information. And I couldn't help but wonder if providing too much information might be just another way of keeping secrets.

— Jerry Zremski

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