Steve Ballmer’s USA Facts and Next Generation Open Data

April 21, 2017 – Autumn Carter


We love open data.

Several months back, I recall a flurry of excitement and curiosity circulating through our inboxes and lunch conversations here at OpenGov. What is this going to look like? How are they going to collect their data? How far into the data will we be able to drill down?

We were discussing former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer’s plans for USAFacts.org, a government transparency site he was planning to launch. USAFacts sounded ambitious and data-driven and fundamentally citizen-focused. Those are qualities central to OpenGov’s mission of empowering more effective and accountable government.

Governments Power USAFacts

I think it’s critical to note government’s role in making USAFacts possible. Governments function as a critical, if not the primary, information source in many cases. The federal government has opened much of its data, which explains USAFacts’ emphasis at that level. It also explains why there is still so much untapped potential to unlock the benefits of open data among local and state governments.

More local and state governments are opening their data each day, and as the next generation of open data emerges, there is greater opportunity to make data more than simply available. At OpenGov, we are committed to helping governments learn how to make their data useful as well.

For example, here is a short excerpt from our new eBook, Discovering Next Generation Open Data:

The previous generation of open data emerged over the last decade, promising a bold, ambitious, and robust future. Unfortunately, those promises fell short once it was clear the state of technology could not deliver on them at the time.

At its advent, the greatest need was in digitization. Many governments recognized they needed to build their online presence by moving their files and data online. The first generation of open data focused here: closing the gap between unavailable and available data.

It was a critical first step, but public administrators and the public had expected more. The mere act of moving data online did little to ensure anyone actually used it. For administrators excited by the prospect of giving life to data, limited use cases and nascent public engagement were disappointing.

Today, technology for sharing and accessing data online has improved significantly, and more governments are primed to make use of their organizational data.They are adopting the next generation of open data, shifting their focus to use and usability. They no longer have to contend with the high costs of building and maintaining the technology themselves, and they no longer worry about operating without guidance and clear best practices. Much has changed in a decade.

Government as Data Provider and User

One crucial change has been the recognition that the public sector is pivotal given its role not only as a critical data provider, but also as a critical data user. The public sector is the key to unlocking open data’s value.

A 2014 McKinsey study identified open data as the potential source of more than $3 trillion in untapped economic value comprised of “increased revenue, savings, and economic surplus that flow from the insights provided by data as diverse as census demographics, crop reports, and information on product recalls.” And as McKinsey noted, “Sitting at the nexus of key stakeholders – citizens, businesses, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) – government is ideally positioned to extract value from open data and to help others do the same.”

It is clear that USAFacts is an example of an effort to make data more useful – in this case, as a way to make information clearer to citizens. The exciting part is that it is only one initiative made possible by governments “sitting at the nexus of key stakeholders.” As governments continue opening their data going forward, they will be powering endless valuable use cases for citizens, journalists, non-profits, businesses, and their own public sector organizations. I can hardly wait to see it.

Click here to download the free eBook, Discovering Next Generation Open Data.


Autumn Carter leads Government Affairs at OpenGov.