Steve Ballmer is the former CEO of Microsoft and the current owner of the Los Angeles Clippers. He is also the creator of USAFacts, a website dedicated to organizing and presenting data that allows U.S. citizens to understand the population, finances and government policy of the United States.
I interviewed him two weeks ago about his project. The interview has been split up into two parts. The first part (below) focuses on USAFacts. The second part (to be published Friday) also discusses broader questions about the role of facts and data in the U.S. today. Both parts have been edited lightly.
HF – Previous interviews have suggested that your site saw a big burst in initial numbers, and that things have tapered off a little since. What do the figures look like at the moment?
SB – We’ve had a total of about 750,000 unique visitors, which is great. Every state in the union and almost every country in the world. That part’s great. I would say that we’ve tapered down to about 3,000 visitors a day, which is not many, in my opinion. But every time we get out and talk about the thing, we see a surge.
I think there are probably three or four different things going on. First, we have to work harder to make our site findable. Second, we have to make our site more consumable. Third, we need dialogue and discussion in general on the value of data and facts in decision-making. Whether people are coming to our site or going somewhere else, the key for us is to get people to really look at the numbers and look at them in context.
A lot of what people like to do is to pick numbers at random, so we think it helps to have something that is contextual, complete and comprehensible. We think that we’ve done a really good job in making ourselves comprehensible, but it could really be better. I think that people like the facts, but not everyone loves numbers. Bringing those things alive in graphical form will help.
The problem with words is that they have a harder time capturing context and being accurate. When you say that something is very small or very large, I don’t know what that means. If I say that this number is 10, and this is 11, that tells me what you mean by very large and very small. Adjectives and words are wonderful things, but at least for the part of government that we’re focusing in on, the part that can be described numerically, we think it’s really important to use the numbers.
HF – So you are planning to work with data visualizations?
SB – Yes. We have some cool ideas for that, using — no surprise — Microsoft’s Power BI technology.
HF – So do you have any idea of the profile of the 3,000 users who come every day?
SB – They tend to be younger. They come disproportionately, which may not be surprising, from the state of California. They come from New York and D.C., and also the state of Washington. There is a strong tech, educated community reflecting not only Microsoft but Amazon and the start-up community. Those who use the site tend to be younger, by and large, and a little more liberal than average, but not by much. Other than that, they are a pretty representative set of people.