Politics and civics Tech & society

Ballmer spends $10M to pull government data into one site

Steve Ballmer has spent $10 million to pull together data from all branches of US government. But is it usable (and useful)?

Government data visualization on steroids.

Courtesy of … Steve Ballmer?

USAFacts was inspired by a conversation Steve Ballmer had with his wife. She wanted him to get more involved in philanthropic work. He thought it made sense to first find out what government does with the money it raises. Where does the money come from and where is it spent? Whom does it serve? And most importantly, what are the outcomes?

But don’t hold your breath if you actually want to use the data. Because closed environment mindsets die hard:

[Ballmer] hopes to open it up so that individuals and companies can build on top of it and pull out customized reports.

You gotta be kidding me.

If you need to see another disconnect between 0.01%ers like Ballmer and normal people, here’s one. The NYT provides it, stenographic-like, with no commentary:

“Most of the not-for-profits we work with would be 50 to 90 percent government funded,” Mr. Ballmer said, referring to various efforts to fight poverty that he has supported. “I mean it’s funny, but I didn’t realize all these not-for-profits were in a sense almost like government contractors.”

Pardon my second WTF? Ballmer didn’t know that NFPs rely on government grants, especially those dealing with poverty and health? And he gets to influence government more than most, because, money?

What is USAFacts?

It’s Ballmer’s attempt to provide a website that consolidates public data from all levels of government: federal, state, local. The U.S. Constitution lays out four goals for government, and Ballmer’s team used those goals to provide a framework for the data.

USA Facts Mission


There’s a LOT of data, some of it in infographics, much in tables. But it’s far more than is possible to review on day one.

Here’s one data point, a commentary on current political rhetoric, pulled from a table in the slides:



One of the reports being lauded in the press is what Ballmer calls “the equivalent of a 10-K for government.” Public companies provide a 10-K report to the SEC each year; they are written in finance-speak. From Recode:

It’s a 316-page, chart-heavy filing that [Ballmer] acknowledges is geared toward the business set.

As for the risk factors outlined in the 10-K report?

But Ballmer doesn’t peg government — or its hyper-partisanship — as a risk to itself. The 10-K doesn’t highlight the quirks of the U.S. Congress that render it difficult to pass legislation, the slow-moving nature of the rest of Washington, or the role of corporate executives — Ballmer included — to fund political candidates for those very offices. And, most obviously, it doesn’t mention Trump or his administration, which is often faulted for deviations from fact.


Finally from Seattle-based GeekWire, an interview:

But is there really a paucity of data?

From Recode:

[The site rests on] a belief that voters and regulators alike could make better decisions if only they had unbiased, unpolluted information at their fingertips…. From simple Google and Wikipedia searches to deeper number-crunching work published by nonprofits like the Sunlight Foundation, there’s an existing wealth of scannable data about U.S. tax dollars and how, and on whom, they’re spent.


What do you think?


By Kathy E. Gill

Digital evangelist, speaker, writer, educator. Transplanted Southerner; teach newbies to ride motorcycles! @kegill

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