The Barenaked Ladies, a Canadian pop band, famously sang; “If I had a million dollars….I’d be rich.” For those of you, kind reader, who spend their days, evening and weekends in the trenches of data with a tenacity that is equally Herculean as it is Sisyphisian,you understand that a million dollars is no panacea of solutions and breakthroughs.
Steve Ballmer, former CEO of Microsoft, took on a unique and tough project after he left Microsoft. He set out to “figure out what the [U.S.] government really does with the money.” To borrow from Wired.com; “(usafacts.org), launching today, organizes 30 years of data from more than 70 local, state, and federal government agencies into a well-designed, centralized hub that its creators hope will give people a clearer picture of how the government makes and spends money.
The effort to date should not be minimized or easily shirked off. Mr. Ballmer sought out dozens if not hundreds of economists, academics, data scientists, data visualization experts and graphic designers in an attempt to make sense of data sources that were far from workable. Before you begin to shudder at any data cleaning efforts that you have undertaken, ponder the following for a moment – “Ballmer’s team spent two years combing through government websites, manually pulling data from PDFs, spreadsheets, websites, and reports, and entering them into hundreds of Excel spreadsheets and data tables.” I must remember to revisit this post the next time I am met with a spreadsheet that more closely resembles a remedial level of cryptography as opposed to a workable source of information!
A recent interview with the Washington Post has shed light on the popularity of usafacts.org after the initial launch and PR campaign.
“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.”
To recap, the former CEO of Microsoft, $10 million dollars in financing, access to the best and brightest across several sectors from economics, statistics and design; access to an unparalleled network of technology partners and software platforms and still user retention is a struggle. How are we feeling about our data projects so carefully protected on the side of our respective desks now? Do we throw in the towel? Do we trigger an existential crisis and ponder what this all means? I would suggest we seek to understand what is happening to cause this shift and see what gems we can apply to our respective work.
Several hypotheses were offered up to help explain the drop-off in usage. Ballmer posits; “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.”
Looking ahead to possible next steps, Ballmer offers;
“I think that people like the facts, but not everyone loves numbers. Bringing those things alive in graphical form will help.”
Fear not gentle reader. All is not lost! The future is indeed bright and the potential for data as full as ever. Perhaps the true gem in the two part interview was the following summation of the dualistic power of numbers;
“There is a road that numbers finish and a road that numbers start. If you want to know how many people receive their health care through employer-sponsored plans, numbers finish the discussion. If you want to have a discussion about deductibility of employee health insurance, etc., then I would say that numbers start the policy discussion. Hopefully, people grounded in the same numbers and same facts start the policy discussion, and if someone wants to say what the number is, then there is an answer to that question. So numbers answer some questions and help people support an informed debate about what to do next.”
In short, you cannot spend your way out of your current data woes. Please don’t misunderstand, $10 million dollars can fund an incredible amount of infrastructure and talent. If those efforts are met with blank stares and lingering looks at smartphones from your audience, then to what end was all the effort? In this realm, context is king, content is your world and numeracy your path to attention spans, meaningful conversation and future work.
Would $10 million dollars solve your data woes? Would a particular skill set get you over the tipping point on the road to data domination? What data dilemma(s) are you currently struggling with? Drop us a line in the comments or on Twitter. We would love to hear your story.