Can USAFacts make U.S. government data more accessible?


USAFacts provides a fresh and – dare we say – innovative take on U.S. Government statistics. We assess this project which has been funded by Steve Ballmer, former CEO Microsoft.

The Big Picture

There’s lies, damn lies and statistics. Enter USAFacts, a project funded by Steve Ballmer, former CEO Microsoft, that seeks to make U.S. government data more accessible to every citizen. It may not solve the question marks that always hang over ‘facts’ but it is an interesitng project well worth the examination.

If you’ve ever seen Ballmer, in action—maybe at a Microsoft conference or at a Los Angeles Clippers basketball game—you know that he is an enthusiastic man. At times, he most resembles a new puppy who’s just discovered your favorite socks and is happily chewing them to shreds. Those among diginomica readers may remember the Ballmer war cry of ‘Developers, developers, developers.’

Ballmer’s latest project is more staid, but begins to solve one of most challenging data conundrums of our time; federal, state and local governments produce vast mountains of statistical information that show how they are being run but most of it is inaccessible to most citizens.

The USAFacts, project is an ambitious, $10 million effort to present government data in a way that’s open, non-partisan, and accessible to everybody. USAFacts organizes 30 years of data from more than 70 local, state, and federal government agencies into a well-designed, hub that its creators hope will provide a clearer picture of how their governments make and spend money.

The USAFacts report is organized around a four-pronged mission statement — derived from the preamble to the U.S. Constitution: Establish justice and ensure domestic tranquility; Provide for the common defense; Promote the general welfare; and Secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.

Ballmer told the Washington Post that one of his goals was to break through some of the partisan divide that is gripping America at this particular moment in history:

I’d like it to be a tool that gives people common data without a lot of adjectives. Numbers don’t dramatize good or bad, they just are what they are. What I’ve found is when people work off common data, they often find that they have more similar opinions than different ones. Certainly, in a highly partisan world, that would be a good thing.

As you might expect, USAFacts is built on Microsoft Azure, using technologies including SQL Server and  a REST API built in .NET for the backend. The front end is built in React and Victory, with Lunr JavaScript search technology. The team hope to add PowerBI later to let people mix and match their own data sets and visualizations. Over time, Ballmer says, USAFacts aims to become a platform that third-parties can use to build their own applications using the data.

Data freaks may not find the information available today as deep as they might like but Ballmer says the initial goal was to gather enough data to create a government version of a Form 10-K, the annual report that the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission requires companies to submit that shares a comprehensive summary of its financial performance. Ballmer told the Seattle Times:

We do include all the (high-level) state numbers, money spent and raised, by state. The thing we don’t do now but will in the future is translate that to outcomes in the states, so you can see what’s going on with the crime rate, for example, in the state of Washington. What reading proficiency looks like in the state of Washington.

One fact you will not find in the database is the number of guns in the U.S.  Thanks to the gun lobby, the U.S. government is prohibited from collecting such data.

My take

USAFacts comes at a time when media is besieged with claim and counterclaim over the question of what constitutes facts used in the determination of policy and the setting of agendas both political and among technology vendors and buyers. Right now, the project has produced a good looking outcome that should at least spark public interest.

The fact that USAFacts is at pains to be non-partisan (Ballmer doesn’t even claim the amount he has sunk into it as a deduction against his taxes) is important in the current highly charged political atmosphere. That should add an air of intended credibility that isn’t always obvious elsewhere.

Whether that combination of intent and presentation is enough to also encourage the engagement by those using government facts on a day to day basis is another matter. We know for example that certain of the labor statistics are cobbled using a methodology that some consider fatally flawed when it comes to properly assessing those in employment. We can also see there are inconsistencies in some of the timelines. That shows up the sometimes arcane manner in which the U.S. government collects the data which it subsequently makes available.

Image credit - Via USAFacts and public sources