When it comes to transparency, government spending can often seem like it falls near the bottom of the list. Several years ago, after retiring as Microsoft CEO, Steve Ballmer felt the topic was worth exploring on a deeper level.
This past April, Ballmer’s project finally came to fruition with the public launch of USAFacts (usafacts.org), an extensive, interactive online database detailing revenue and spending across federal, state and local governments.
The website, which relies exclusively on publicly available government sources, allows users to compare and contrast various data sets. For example, a person can compare the number of police officers employed in different regions of the country against their crime rates.
According to USAFacts, government revenue totaled $5.2 trillion in 2014, the most recent year available for data.
“The response has been overwhelmingly positive. It’s amazing how many people simply write to say ‘thank you for doing this,’” said Christine Heenan, USAFacts spokeswoman. “More than 600,000 people have visited the website, for a total of more than 4.7 million page views—and the best part is visitors are really digging in to the details, exploring the data and examining outcomes.”
All together, more than 50 economists, developers, writers and researchers were involved in the creation of USAFacts. The core team of three full-time employees is based in Seattle. Meanwhile, a “broader team,” Heenan said, includes data scientists at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, developers at the design firm Artefact, as well as outside advisers from Stanford University and Lynchburg College in Virginia.
Team members will continue to update data as government agencies release new information. Additional statistics on state and local finances will soon be available too.
Through the first month of its existence, USAFacts received more than 1,000 emails about the project, ranging from questions about partnerships or collaborations to inquiries for specific sets of data.
“USAFacts has no political agenda or commercial motive. We have no plans to charge for access to the website or any of the data,” Heenan said. “Our founder views the project as a civic opportunity—an effort to democratize government numbers and get more people looking at shared facts—and will continue financing it.”
Heenan noted that the website’s database provides an ample opportunity for journalists looking for reliable sourcing on their stories.
“Several different outlets—newspapers, television networks, and digital publishers—have reached out about using USAFacts in their reporting,” she said. “We’re eager to explore partnerships that could help advance our goal of democratizing government data and promoting informed debate.”