A few months ago, we noted that the Gates Foundation has emerged as one of the leaders in requiring the research that it funds to be released as open access and open data — an interesting application of the money that Bill Gates made from closed-source software. Now it seems that his successor as Microsoft CEO, Steve Ballmer, has had a similar epiphany about openness. Back in 2001, Ballmer famously called GNU/Linux “a cancer”. Although he later softened his views on software somewhat, that was largely because he optimistically claimed that the threat to Microsoft from free software was “in the rearview mirror”. Not really: today, the Linux-based Android has almost two orders of magnitude more market share than Windows Phone. However, there’s one area of openness that Ballmer seems to have embraced whole-heartedly for his new project USAFacts, which launched this week — open data:
USAFacts is a new data-driven portrait of the American population, our government’s finances, and government’s impact on society. We are a non-partisan, not-for-profit civic initiative and have no political agenda or commercial motive. We provide this information as a free public service and are committed to maintaining and expanding it in the future.
We rely exclusively on publicly available government data sources. We don’t make judgments or prescribe specific policies. Whether government money is spent wisely or not, whether our quality of life is improving or getting worse — that’s for you to decide. We hope to spur serious, reasoned, and informed debate on the purpose and functions of government. Such debate is vital to our democracy. We hope that USAFacts will make a modest contribution toward building consensus and finding solutions.
In addition to allowing a wide range of public data sets to be queried using a site-specific search engine, USAFacts also offers synoptic views:
an annual report, a summary report, and a “10-K” modeled on the document public companies submit annually to the SEC for transparency and accountability to their investors.
In an age where “fake news,” AKA lies, are common currency, and where the Trump administration is making government more, not less, opaque, Ballmer’s philanthropic, fact-based endeavor is particularly welcome. It’s also nice to see him following Gates and implicitly acknowledging that open is more powerful than closed.