Sniffing Out the Stimulus

| FROM THE PRINT EDITION |
 
 

If you want to know how the government is spending the stimulus dollars, don’t ask the government. Ask Onvia.

In fact, when, in June, a member of the House of Representatives Oversight Committee rang up Eric Gillespie, senior vice president and chief information officer for Seattle’s Onvia, it wasn’t for the kind of inquisition a Seattle business might worry about. No, what the committee really wanted to know was how it is that one Seattle company has been able to perform a major feat that the government hasn’t: Track the stimulus money.

For those who remember the internet boom, the name Onvia may ring a bell. Founded as a business-to-business firm in 1996, Onvia lost its founders and a lot of revenue during the dot-com bust. Instead of folding, the company restructured. Evaluating the assets that were left, the remaining executives found a small pocket of the business that wasn’t concerned with B2B, but the government market.

It was the most valuable offering the company had, says Gillespie, and it’s what allowed Onvia to emerge from the rubble and grow from a couple of hundred thousand in revenue to $25 million today. Where once Onvia supplied everything from BlackBerrys to sticky notes to small businesses, the company now provides leads for businesses looking to bid on government-funded projects.

Onvia, which sources information from about 89,000 different agencies around the country—from states and cities to mosquito abatement districts and school districts—seems to know about most all of the government’s purchasing plans. And while knowing how the government spends money at the federal level is, Gillespie says, fairly cut and dried, knowing how it spends money at the state and local levels is nearly an intractable problem.

Or was. Through a combination of custom-built technology, deep web searching, a taxonomy that updates every day and manual labor that includes calling procurement officials to capture information, Onvia has found a way to track contracts at every level in every state. If, for example, North Dakota’s Burleigh County Housing Authority is accepting bids for window replacements, Onvia knows about it. And, if the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is looking for engineering and design firms that can renovate approximately 11,000 square feet of a laboratory at the Seattle Division of Veterans Affairs, including the hematology lab, chemistry lab and the anatomic pathology-morgue area of the existing medical laboratory, Onvia knows about that, too. How does the company profit from this knowledge? By selling it to those businesses that want those contracts.

It was natural, then, that Onvia would jump on the stimulus-and-recovery bandwagon. After all, since it already knew how the government was spending money, or at least knew how to find out how the government was spending money, it only made sense to make that knowledge public. It was also important to provide businesses that were hiring people and creating jobs with the market trigger events and RFP documents coming down the line as a result of stimulus funding.

“If we were the only available source of this info, we felt like we had an obligation to provide that information to the businesses that were out there,” says Gillespie.

For many small- and midsize firms, the government is the last client standing.

“You can argue whether stimulus works or doesn’t, whether it creates jobs or not. Politically, we don’t really have an opinion,” says Gillespie. “What we do know we know because we have almost 9,000 clients that see the government as a revenue stream. For a lot of them … that’s what’s keeping their people employed.”

So, on March 31, Onvia launched Recovery.org. Recovery.org does what the government’s Recovery.gov cannot: It details not only what money is going to which state for what reason, but also drills down to the minute level, highlighting the very projects that are being funded.

While Recovery.gov shows a pie chart of the kinds of projects the stimulus money is being directed at—health, transportation, community development—then sends users to individual state recovery sites for more information, Recovery.org features real-time tracking of how many dollars are going to each state. It also allows users to see exactly which projects—the purchase of 23 new busses for the Spokane Transit Authority, for example, or the replacement of the Hannegan Road Scott Ditch Bridge in Bellingham—are being funded and, when the contract has been awarded, which bidder won the job.

Pretty slick, really. So slick that to date, the Obama administration hasn’t figured out how to do the same thing itself.

While the site was established for businesses, a couple of user groups have emerged that Onvia hadn’t anticipated. For starters, it didn’t expect the tax-paying public to visit Recovery.org. And yet Onvia has received thousands, if not tens of thousands, of hits and e-mails from people looking for access to funds.

The real unexpected user group, however, has been the United States government. Of the top 15 users of the website, 13 are federal agencies. That’s because, says Gillespie, the federal government is trying to figure out how the states allocate money. There is no reporting mechanism in place; there is no accountability.

States and counties are also regular visitors to the site. States look to see how the cities and counties spend the money, while cities and counties are primarily interested in determining whether they’ve received an equitable distribution of capital.

Of course, these kinds of government user groups provide no real revenue for Onvia, though the company is hopeful that someday the Obama administration might be interested in buying what Onvia has developed, instead of trying to make it on their own. After all, the administration has $84 million allocated to relatively puny Recovery.gov, while Onvia built the much more robust Recovery.org in a mere four weeks for $10,000. An upgraded version has since been launched with animation and maps to allow users to visually connect projects with their locations. Onvia has still spent less than $100,000 on the entire package.

In reality, it’s the business of business Onvia is after. While it claims it was in the picture for the public good, the company had to have hoped making details on stimulus projects available to the public would also buttress the bottom line. And it has.

Stimulus projects represent less than 2 percent of the total government projects happening at this time, says Gillespie, and many a company that has found a biddable job on Recovery.org has turned to Onvia to find out about the other 98 percent of projects they might fit.

“We love talking with those businesses that find us through stimulus and are actually interested in doing more,” says Gillespie.

Call it added value or good marketing: Onvia is certainly making good on making the government more transparent.  

 

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