Since stepping down as Microsoft CEO and board member in 2014, Steve Ballmer has gone from freaking out on stage at corporate conferences to freaking out at Clippers games. Turns out he’s been freaking out about one more thing over the past few years — how difficult it is to find, filter, and understand government statistics, especially when it comes to government spending. It’s a problem a lot of people have been aware of, but Steve Ballmer isn’t like a lot of people in one very important way — he is sitting on virtually inexhaustible sums of money.
Since his retirement, Ballmer has stood in contrast to fellow former Microsoft CEO Bill Gates, who has poured his wealth into philanthropic efforts, creating a foundation that has been instrumental in reducing incidences of polio and malaria around the world. Ballmer hasn’t been one for philanthropy, which is where the story of USA Facts begins.
USA Facts, a website that has just gone live, is a repository of government statistics with an emphasis on visualizing how the government gets and spends money. Use the site’s ‘The Big Picture’ feature, and you’ll see a huge branching chart of where government money comes from and goes, including just how big a slice of the pie each line item represents. The spending part is organized by the U.S. Constitution’s outline of government responsibilities — to “establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.”
And, as the name promises, it’s all just facts. The site allows you to search for or browse information — mostly about spending at federal, state, and local levels, but also stats about crime rates and enrollments in charter schools — and nothing else. You won’t find any interpretation, editorials, blog posts, or even ham-handed attempts at breaking down issues into two opposing sides. All USA Facts has to offer is graphs and numbers.
There’s no attempt at monetizing the site, which explains why all those moneymakers (and magnets for ads, of which the site has none) are missing. Ballmer is all-in on the project, and has committed to funding the site and the research efforts behind it in perpetuity. Ballmer has enlisted the help of the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research, the Penn Wharton Budget Model, and Lynchburg College to help put the site together (design firm Artefact is responsible for the visualizations of the data). But, those researchers are only aggregating data, not creating it — all of the data is comes from publicly available sources. The furthest USA Facts goes in laying a hand on the numbers is when different sources have conflicting numbers, in which case the team tries to be as consistent as possible in which sources they choose.
Given that all the information is publicly available, it’s worth noting that USA Facts isn’t bringing anything new to light. Open.gov and data.gov are existing government resources that contain much of this information, and anything found within the site can be accessed using a Freedom of Information Act request. But, none of those things are as immediate or user-friendly as USA Facts. A snappy search feature and excellent charts and graphs turns all those facts and figures into simple images that can be grasped immediately, independent of any editorial input.
Believe it or not, all of this is coming from Ballmer’s resistance to philanthropy. The story goes that shortly after his retirement from Microsoft, Ballmer’s wife, Connie Snyder, tried to encourage him to get into philanthropy. Ballmer questioned why he should, saying that the government takes care of that stuff with all the taxes he’s paying. Well, that sparked what I imagine must have been a lengthy Wikipedia rabbit hole session for Ballmer, during which he had an epiphany — he (like most of us) didn’t actually have a clear idea of where his tax dollars were going. Ballmer didn’t like that very much, and to his credit, he opened up his wallet (reportedly spending upwards of $10 million) to try to make things right.
Ballmer remains engaged with the project, and he’s put his own corporate spin on things. While the site explicitly doesn’t promote the idea that government should be run like a business, USA Facts has aggregated government spending data into reports that resemble 10-K forms — the sort that businesses have to submit to the government to summarize their finances. USA Facts will continue to produce those reports, while keeping their databases updated with the latest government stats made public.
In short order, USA Facts should become a great resource to help anyone in the country understand what the government actually does, and how it’s funded. The hope is that sites like these start guiding political discourse — if that hope is realized, despite himself, Ballmer might just have his own philanthropic legacy.