Microsoft co-founder launches USAFacts; what are the lessons for other governments?

Microsoft  co-founder Steve Ballmer has created a new organisation to analyse US government spending and revenue to make it easier to understand. He says he created USAFacts because he was frustrated he couldn’t find a single source that combined all the relevant state and federal numbers. Ballmer gathered a group of data specialists that has spent nearly three years compiling the information for its first reports, which will be updated periodically. The former Microsoft chief executive says he wants to provide clear information on government spending, adding that he hopes it will be easier to discuss divisive issues if everyone can agree on the basic facts.

He outlined the initiative in a speech yesterday (18 April) at the Economic Club of New York after trailing it with The New York Times: “You know, when I really wanted to understand in depth what a company was doing, Amazon or Apple, I’d get their 10-K and read it. It’s wonky, it’s this, it’s that, but it’s the greatest depth you’re going to get, and it’s accurate. I would like citizens to be able to use this to form intelligent opinions [about government spending]. People can disagree about what to do — I’m not going to tell people what to do. You’ve got to look at federal, state and local together. Because I’m a citizen, I don’t care whether I give my money to A, B or C. I just want to know how it lands, how it impacts what’s going on. Let’s say [his idea] costs three, four, five million a year. I’m happy to fund the damn thing.”

An initial verdict, from Wired: “USAFacts shares the intent of previous open data efforts—the government launched in 2009 to centralise its stats, and President Obama passed the DATA Act in 2014 to get record-keeping standards up—but adds much-needed vitality. The platform looks nothing like its bureaucratic counterparts or startups like OpenGov, which also tries to organise and parse government data. Its typeface is pleasingly legible. The site navigation is intuitive. But most importantly, [Seatlle design studio] Artefact has made dry facts and figures actually feel engaging.

“Ballmer’s team spent two years combing through government websites, manually pulling data from PDFs, spreadsheets, websites, and reports, and entering them into hundreds of Excel spreadsheets and data tables. Artefact’s designers took that mountain of raw information and translated it into a series of infographics that help make the slog of data not just accessible, but comprehensible.

“The infographics allow people to move seamlessly between a 30,000 foot view and a microscopic look at spending, with just a few clicks. Visit the USAFact’s landing page and you’ll find the interactive graphic pictured above. The colorful, geometric visualisation aims to answer the project’s main question: Where does the government’s money come from? And where does it go? To answer that, Artefact organised the graphic like Russian nesting dolls. The more you interact with it, the greater detail it reveals. Hover over a block on the infographic, and you’ll see the interconnectedness between various data sets. Click, and you’ll get more granular data about how the government uses that money. ‘How do you understand what the big picture is, without losing sight of it when you’re drilling into something pretty detailed?’ asks Dave McColgin, a user experience designer at Artefact.”

Wired’s conclusion: “The platform aims to be non-partisan and unbiased, but infographics are inherently editorialised. USAFact’s creators combat this by being as transparent as possible about where they found their data. Ballmer says he views USAFacts as a form of governmental annual report where neutrality is possible because unadulterated facts speak for themselves. ‘We put the data there in an orchestrated way so people can find it and create their own analysis,’ he says. It’s a worthy mission, and one that’s been hamstrung in the past by shoddy organisation and presentation. Ballmer’s platform certainly makes it easier to find the governmental data you’re looking for—and the data you didn’t know you were looking for. Now it’s just up to the people to make use of it.”