Former Microsoft chief Steve Ballmer, who has unveiled his USAFacts database and annual report on government spending, talks about the effort and whether the tech world pays enough attention to civic society.
Steve Ballmer on Tuesday unveiled the biggest (nonbasketball) project of his post-Microsoft life: a data trove and corporate annual report-style presentation analyzing government spending.
The effort, dubbed USAFacts, started as a conversation between Ballmer and his wife, Connie, as he looked for new projects after stepping down in 2014 following 14 years at the helm of Microsoft.
He was under the impression that government spending created a robust social safety net in the U.S. Connie, who was familiar with the government’s limits after years of work in philanthropy, told him that wasn’t always the case.
Steve Ballmer started digging around on how the government spends and raises money, and the results of those programs. That inquiry led to a research effort funded by more than $10 million of the billionaire’s money, and, on Tuesday, the release of an annual report and online database that aim to answer the question.
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Before a flight to Los Angeles to catch the second game of his Los Angeles Clippers’ playoff series against the Utah Jazz, Ballmer spoke a bit about the effort, and whether the technology world pays enough attention to civic society.
An edited version follows.
Q: The researchers working on this are spread around a bit — at educational institutions in California, Pennsylvania and Virginia. What’s the Seattle-area team working on this look like?
A: It’s got a couple of full-time people (here); we’ve got a web-design firm, Artefact, that’s Seattle-based. The designers, the writers are primarily in Seattle.
The back end of the tech is not in the state of Washington, but it sits in (Microsoft’s cloud-computing platform) Azure, which is built in the state of Washington.
Q: The creation story behind this project — that you, a pretty well-informed person felt like you weren’t well-informed enough about how government functions— strikes me as pretty common among technology executives, including some at Microsoft today. You can kind of put your head down and get lost in work. Do you think the tech industry as a whole does a good enough job staying in touch with civic society?
A: I think industry does a reasonable job actually. Part of the reason that we did this project, it’s just hard to quantify (government actions).
You see this among people who follow technology. How would you see the forest through the trees if you’re not in the industry every day? What we’re trying to do here is create a sort of big picture of the forest so that anybody can see.
Q: After digging into the federal government a bit, any interest in expanding the project to the state level? Washington state would seem a candidate to benefit from a greater awareness of where the money is moving, and we’re hardly alone.
A:. 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.
We didn’t do that today, we can only show you the average across all states. We will do that work, and will certainly include the great state of Washington.
Q: You’ve said this project aims to be politically neutral, but particularly in the level of descriptions you give in this annual report-style document, there’s a risk characterizations carry a political subtext, data are cherry-picked or not presented in a fair or appropriate context. What kind of guardrails did you set up to prevent that from happening?
A: (Nonpartisanship) is a principle (of ours). We all read for potential concerns. We take out adjectives wherever we can and let numbers speak for themselves.
We’ve actually had people in both parties, if you will, give us an informal read on partisanship. We’re doing our best … to make sure (we’re) complete and comprehensive and contextual, and we think we’ve done a super good job on that. But people will battle test this.