How Steve Ballmer’s USAFacts fits in with other efforts to detail government spending

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A new site launched this week to help citizens get a look at revenue and spending across America’s federal, state and local governments.

The project, dubbed USAFacts, is funded by former Microsoft chief executive officer Steve Ballmer. Ballmer assembled a team of economists, writers and researchers to find out how government spends the money it gets.

The team, which included academic partners, spent time combing through data from a variety of sources and making decisions when data sources contradicted one another. But conveniently, a law with an impending deadline may make their work easier for future reports — at least in tracking federal spending. The Digital Accountability and Transparency Act — signed into law in 2014 — requires all federal agencies begin reporting their spending data in a standardized format starting in May.

“In a sense, what you want a citizen to be able to do is to go to look and say, what do my tax dollars go for? How much taxes do people pay? What is the money going to get used for? And what kind of outcome?” Steve Ballmer said in a talk about the new site.

USAFacts aims to offer a user-friendly way to look at government spending broken into four categories outlined in the preamble of the U.S. Constitution: “Establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility;  provide for the common defense;  promote the general welfare; and  secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.” The DATA Act, however, will require agencies to organize their data in much different ways, and with much more granularity.

Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., who introduced the DATA Act on the Senate side, said to FedScoop via email that “As agencies begin to come into compliance with the law in the coming month, this open, machine-readable data will bolster data aggregation and analysis efforts like USA Facts.”

“The way I see it, these efforts are complementary  and mutually-reinforcing, and there is incredible value in having this data collated by both government and outside sources,” Warner said. “After all, it is government’s job to be accountable and transparent to its citizens, while it is the job of the private and nonprofit sectors to hold us to that high standard.”

Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., who introduced the DATA Act on the House side, said via email that projects like USAFacts are enabled by the DATA Act and other efforts to make information open “in a way that’s actually usable.”

“Spending data that is open, freely accessible, computer-searchable, and uniform-in-format alleviates what you had to do before, which was pour over thousands and thousands of pages of documents or reports in different data formats and compile it together yourself to find waste, trends or get any real information. That’s a huge undertaking,” Issa notes via email. The involved process the Issa describes sound not unlike the one the USAFacts team underwent.

The team aggregated and analyzed data and information from about 130 different databases, and about 70 different agencies, Ballmer said during a speech announcing the site’s launch.

Ballmer noted some agencies were doing great work to publish data, but caveated that “some government data is inconsistent with other government data. Some of the most important sources, we think are great, but some of the academics say, ‘well everyone knows that database is not the most accurate.'”

He added: “We’ll push to have those things improved.”

As the executive director of the Data Coalition, Hudson Hollister, put it to FedScoop: USAFacts is limited in how specific its analysis can get because of the data that’s actually available.

“After the DATA Act is in place with every agency reporting standardized spending information, using the format that the Treasury Department came up with… then aggregations like USAFacts.org will be able to go into much greater detail,” Hollister said.

Hollister also pointed out that the new USAFacts doesn’t eliminate a need to implement the DATA Act for government to better understand its own spending.

“Right now USAFacts.org is a great transparency platform but not a management one,” Hollister said. “We couldn’t have the government use this for management because it doesn’t reflect information in the operational categories that government uses.”

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DATA Act, data transparency, government spending data, open data, USA Facts
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