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How Former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer Is Tracking The Pandemic10:45
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Steve Ballmer, founder of USAFacts and former CEO of Microsoft, speaks during the 2018 New York Times Dealbook on Nov. 1, 2018 in New York City.  (Michael Cohen/Getty Images for The New York Times)
Steve Ballmer, founder of USAFacts and former CEO of Microsoft, speaks during the 2018 New York Times Dealbook on Nov. 1, 2018 in New York City. (Michael Cohen/Getty Images for The New York Times)

Steve Ballmer has a number of roles that put him at the center of the news right now.

He’s the former CEO of Microsoft, which is in talks to partially buy TikTok after President Trump threatened to ban the video-sharing app. He’s also the chairman of the Los Angeles Clippers, which are in contention to win the NBA playoffs that just got underway in the league’s isolation bubble.

Ballmer also founded the nonprofit website USAFacts last year as a free public service to help make government data more accessible.

"I started USAFacts because I wanted to understand, by the numbers — because numbers, to me, tell an accurate story — I wanted to understand what government was doing, where the money was coming from, what it was being spent on and what kind of outcomes government was getting,” he told Here & Now in 2019.

The organization launched the “Coronavirus Impact and Recovery Hub” to track U.S. government data during the COVID-19 pandemic. He says the hub looks at specific issues such as how employment statistics compare to health statistics in communities across the country.

Take Texas for example. He says USAFacts found that although coronavirus cases are high in Texas, the unemployment numbers are lower in the state than they are in New York, where the reverse is true.

“It gets at what the relative economic impacts are across the states based upon health policy,” he says.

Those connections show the tradeoffs that each state’s government makes when setting and enforcing coronavirus safety measures.

“We're not going to try to tell people what the right tradeoffs are. That's kind of up to the individual,” he says. “But it is interesting to see some of these pieces of information.”

Their data can be useful to lawmakers who are making difficult decisions every day about their state’s handling of the virus, he says.

USAFacts is not just following the pandemic. They’ve done a deep dive into where all the Paycheck Protection Program loan money is going and are creating a voter center for people to track the candidates on the issues.

But as a nonpartisan civic initiative focused on providing factual information, USAFacts does not forecast predictions because that is “fundamentally partisan,” he says.

He points to a quote by former Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan: “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts."

Data-driven, fact-based decision making is "fundamental to our democracy working,” Ballmer says. “And that's why we're trying to do our best job to put that together in a nonpartisan way.”

Interview Highlights

On ensuring government data is accurate and provides a full picture amid accusations that the Trump administration is hiding or manipulating information about the pandemic

“Well, actually, the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] has been relying on us to some extent for their data, as has the White House coronavirus pandemic task force. We actually go to get the county-level data, county by county by county, and we assemble that into our database. You can see on USAFacts.org down to the county level all of this data. We got after that right after the first inclinations of the pandemic were upon us. And getting that county-level data is actually helpful to the CDC.

“... I don't myself ascribe any malice to what's going on the CDC website at all but that's because we kind of understand how they've been building [their] database with good work from organizations like ours and others.”

On whether counties across the U.S. are doing a good job of keeping track of data during the pandemic

“They are doing the best that they can. Their systems weren't all built for this purpose. In some cases, I will tell you, we get the equivalent of spreadsheets. Some of the data we get comes out of sheriff’s reports on what is going on in those counties. They're not sort of all well-structured and organized in databases and, you know, the kind of thing you would find in a large multinational in terms of reporting and tracking. But I think everybody's making a right-minded effort. But the data is just not going to be as good in the under automated counties if you will.”

On how USAFacts shares information during a time where many aren’t trustworthy of facts that don’t line up with their opinions

“We do a couple of different things. Number one, we only use government data and we only use data about history. Now, some people would say, ‘Hey, I don't agree with government data.’ It's just the best we have. And if citizens don't think they can rely on government data, then it's incumbent on us, all of us, to push our government for better, more consistent and more complete data. And we certainly see opportunities to do that. But by and large, we believe that our government's statistical agencies have good people who are doing good work.

“The thing that we don't do with that is try to do forecasts. Forecasts are fundamentally partisan. And I say that only in the sense that for every bright, smart economist that will say ‘X is going to happen,’ there'll be another bright, smart economist that will say ‘not X is going to happen.’ So we think the thing that citizens need to know and deserve to know is what has happened, which is not partisan, which is not subject to debate, and then people can make their own guesses about where things are moving, where they will go and what they think should be done. And I think that's fundamental. And we still live in this age of people throwing out words like fake news and alternate facts — and that's just not OK. It's never been OK.”

On Microsoft’s potential partial acquirement of TikTok

“I, as a shareholder, of course, the devil's in the details. What will the price be? It sounds like kind of a crazy deal the way it's being split out. So what would that really look like? Is it really a business that Microsoft could take and run with? But the fundamental idea that this company in which I am a shareholder wants to spend some money to essentially guarantee itself a much bigger consumer position, I think that's fundamentally a good idea.”

On whether partially taking over TikTok would put Microsoft at risk of renewed antitrust scrutiny

“Oh, it's hard for me to say. I would find it unlikely, at least on the merits, in the sense that Microsoft has really no position in any consumer internet service. So there's nothing it is building upon that would look like an antitrust problem, a regulatory problem for approval. But I'm not an antitrust lawyer, but that's my instinct.”

On fans reaction to NBA players’ outward support of Black Lives Matter and other social justice issues

“Have I heard any feedback? Not really. I mean, you know, our fans are overwhelmingly in support of what our players are doing. I'm sure — and I haven't gone through all the fan mail — that there are some folks who are not, if you will, in agreement with what the players are doing. And obviously, the league's done all it can to support the players in expressing their points of view, which I think is great. But I think we, by and large, have very strong support among our fan base.”


Chris Bentley produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Tinku RaySerena McMahon adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on August 18, 2020.

This segment aired on August 18, 2020.

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