In an era of alternative facts, Ballmer finds a hunger for data

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(Bloomberg) -- When former Microsoft Corp. Chief Executive Officer Steve Ballmer rolled out a new government data site last month called USAFacts, he worried no one would show up. Instead, so many people have taken an interest he's planning its next expansion.

"Before we launched, I didn't know if we'd have anybody," said Ballmer, a spreadsheet devotee who recognizes not everyone shares his affection for figures and charts. "Numbers are numbers -- some people like them, some people don’t. The concept is both very exciting and a little dry."

A key priority for the next version is making the data more easily accessible to the way most people find information -- search engines and talking digital assistants like Inc.'s Alexa. To do that, Ballmer's team needs to fix the site's search features. They intend to set it up so when users type a question like `How much does the U.S. spend on education?' into Bing or Google, you get back a link to an answer from USAFacts, the same way search engines currently display results from Wikipedia. Ballmer's wife, Connie, asked for the ability to query the family Amazon Echo device so Alexa can become an expert in the inner workings of the U.S. government.

Ballmer is planning to add state and city breakdowns so users can see things like their local crime rates or education spending in their area -- that will come in one of the next major updates. And in the future, he wants to help interested parties work with USAFacts to generate versions for other countries. The U.K., France or Germany would make the most sense to do first, Ballmer said, but he has no plans for the near term because it's more complicated and his staff is overloaded, even though he's hiring more people.

Since it's release on April 15 timed to tax day, USAFacts has had about 630,000 visits, including people from all 50 states and all but five countries. The site offered data in the form of a 10-K, adapting the typical company annual report format into a version for the U.S. government. Like any good 10-K, it will be updated annually.

The first version is 168 pages long and some people dug into it closely enough to send Ballmer detailed feedback and let him know about missing commas. Microsoft's Chief Financial Officer Amy Hood told Ballmer the day after it came out that she'd already read the whole thing and had "marked it up" for him. Another user sent a note declaring the USAFacts site the "most fun a person can have with their clothes on!"

When Ballmer first detailed the project to Bloomberg in November, a week before the election, he was pretty bummed out. Here he was putting his post-Microsoft time into a project to arm citizens with data and no one "seemed to care about the facts," he said at the time. Six months and countless hair-raising government news cycles later, it turns out no matter how strange things get in Washington, many citizens still seek out nonpartisan information.

"In this crazy world of fake news and alternative facts people really believe there should be a place to come to ground," he said.

Some of the interest in the web page has also come from teachers looking for ways to build classes around the data, and citizens of 14 countries from Germany to Tanzania who have reached out to ask Ballmer's group to create a similar project for their countries or to offer their help for that. Others have asked for access to the programming interfaces for the data to do their own analysis -- Ballmer intends to make those available publicly.

Ballmer said he's hiring a person to do outreach to schools, countries and anyone else that wants to use the information. He would like to see more students take a course that teaches them how to parse numbers and ground their views in them. It's a skill many people don't find natural, he said -- when he started teaching his Stanford University seminar on this material last fall the students initially weren't very good at differentiating between data and their own opinions.

In Ballmer's mind, the population is split along the lines of which Microsoft Office product they feel the most kinship with: "There are people who like Word and there are people who like Excel." Presumably there are also PowerPoint people, who like using visualizations to understand information, and Ballmer's project will have something for them as well with a plan to let users create their own charts and pictures from USAFacts data.

USAFacts will also prepare custom reports driven by the government news cycle, so if tax reform gains momentum in Congress, for example, Ballmer's group can show relevant data like tax revenue and where it gets spent.

Two decades ago, it would have been hard to imagine Ballmer and then-Netscape co-founder, now venture capitalist Marc Andreessen on the same side of any issue, but Andreessen is also funding an effort to increase government transparency and accountability by putting data first, Joe Lonsdale's OpenGov, which has raised more than $50 million.

"It's bipartisan," said Andreessen, whose eponymous firm along with Laurene Powell Jobs and other investors plowed $30 million into OpenGov earlier this month. Whether it's Republicans who gather data with an eye toward cutting costs or Democrats who use the information to demonstrate how well programs are working, the appetite is high for immediate and accurate information, he said. "Everyone wants the government to spend money more effectively."

In addition to USAFacts and OpenGov, Lonsdale is backing Socrata, which also has raised north of $50 million, and there are more modest efforts by Junar and Viderum Ltd.

Now that Ballmer knows there's plenty of interest in USAFacts, a new challenge may come from a drying up of the very sources the website is mining. Earlier this month, the head of the U.S. Census Bureau resigned amid jockeying over costs and funding for the 2020 count. Ballmer also is closely monitoring the disappearance of publicly available data on government web sites in the past several months, although he notes other administrations have removed data, too.

"We’re watching it like a hawk," he said. "I don't want to catastrophize what has happened or might happen, I want to be vigilant and be a strong voice that government should remain transparent by the numbers."

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