Category Archives: Uncategorized

How does the government spend money? v. 2

A while back, we showed you retired Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer’s USAFacts site, which he built with a team to help Americans discover how the U.S. budget is being spent.

Back in May, team member Connie Williams shared the beta site for (slowly transferring over to the “actual” site over the summer), which is a federally-mandated site for viewing government data.

Why not take both for a spin and think about how a compare-and-contrast task like this could be beneficial to your students?

Have you explored the datasets at yet?

Looking for datasets? You might like exploring, the philanthropical project from former Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer.

From The New York Times:

He sought to “figure out what the government really does with the money,” Mr. Ballmer said. “What really happens?”

In late April. he launched a public database developed with economists, professors, and others.

The database (USAFacts) is perhaps the first nonpartisan effort to create a fully integrated look at revenue and spending across federal, state and local governments.

Want to know how many police officers are employed in various parts of the country and compare that against crime rates? Want to know how much revenue is brought in from parking tickets and the cost to collect? Want to know what percentage of Americans suffer from diagnosed depression and how much the government spends on it? That’s in there. You can slice the numbers in all sorts of ways …

In an age of fake news and questions about how politicians and others manipulate data to fit their biases, Mr. Ballmer’s project may serve as a powerful antidote. Using his website,, a person could look up just about anything … At the very least, it could settle a lot of bets made during public policy debates at the dinner table.

“I would like citizens to be able to use this to form intelligent opinions,” Mr. Ballmer said. “People can disagree about what to do — I’m not going to tell people what to do.” But, he said, people ought to base their opinions “on common data sets that are believable” …

“You’ve got to look at federal, state and local together,” Mr. Ballmer said …

With an unlimited budget, he went about hiring a team of researchers in Seattle and made a grant to the University of Pennsylvania to help his staff put the information together. Altogether, he has spent more than $10 million between direct funding and grants …

For Mr. Ballmer, the experience has been worth every cent simply for the surprises that he has discovered …

“How many people work for government in the United States?” he asked … “Almost 24 million. Would you have guessed that?”

“Then people say, ‘Those damn bureaucrats!’” Mr. Ballmer exclaimed …“Well, let’s look at that. People who work in schools, higher ed, public institutions of education — they are government employees.” And they represent almost half of the 24 million, his data shows.

(As a statistical benchmark, the entire U.S. population, including retirees, children and teens, and the unemployed, totals 325,000,000 … so 24 million is, even as a ballpark figure, around 10% of the total U.S. population.)

“And you say, O.K., what are the other big blocks?” Mr. Ballmer continued. “Well, active-duty military, war fighters. Government hospitals. Really? I didn’t know that.”

Suddenly, he explained, the faceless bureaucrats who are often pilloried as symbols of government waste start to look like the people in our neighborhood whom we’re very glad to have.

“Now people might not think they’re government employees, but your tax dollars are helping somehow to pay 24 million people — and most of these people you like,” Mr. Ballmer said …

Mr. Ballmer said he wanted the project to be completely apolitical. He has given money to candidates on both sides of the aisle …

One rule Mr. Ballmer said his team made early on was to use only government data — no outside providers — to avoid accusations of bias. But this created its own challenges.

For example, Mr. Ballmer, said: “You know it’s not legal to know how many firearms that are in this country? The government is not allowed to collect the number.”

There is data for the number of firearms manufactured, licenses, inspections, “along with other data, but not a total,” he said. “I can’t show it! I’m shocked! But the N.R.A. apparently has lobbied in such a way government can’t report the data.”

Take it for a spin at .

Book Recommendation: The Aisles Have Eyes (Turow)

Have you ever wondered why individual stores want you to download your app or why there is free Wifi in stores? It’s all part of a sophisticated plan to learn more about you, where you are, what you are interested in, and how stores can increase loyalty and spending in their brick-and-mortar and online portals.

Joseph Turow’s The Aisles Have Eyes: How Retailers Track Your Shopping, Strip Your Privacy, and Define Your Power (Yale University Press, 2017) is a wake-up call for consumers and an insight into how Big Data is transforming shopping experiences for stores and shoppers alike … often without the shopper’s awareness. Under the guise of offering you special discounts, loyalty points, or other customer-facing rewards, the behind-the-scenes data sets are staggeringly large.

Don’t be put off by the book’s academic publisher; the content is compelling, and the writing is reader-friendly. Highly recommended.


Ironically, when I went looking online for a book cover for this post, I discovered that you can buy the book at Wal-Mart, the corporation many say has the most sophisticated set of customer and inventory data anywhere.

Ethical Data Use & Uber

We’re flashing back this week to Jodi Kantor’s New York Times story on Uber from a few weeks ago to bring up an example of how we might discuss ethics and data use, one of this year’s themes, with our students. A short sample from the article:

“The whole thing is like a video game,” said Eli Solomon, a veteran Uber and Lyft driver in the Chicago area, who said he sometimes had to fight the urge to work more after glancing at his data.

Sometimes the so-called gamification is quite literal. Like players on video game platforms such as Xbox, PlayStation and Pogo, Uber drivers can earn badges for achievements like Above and Beyond (denoted on the app by a cartoon of a rocket blasting off), Excellent Service (marked by a picture of a sparkling diamond) and Entertaining Drive (a pair of Groucho Marx glasses with nose and eyebrows).

Of course, managers have been borrowing from the logic of games for generations, as when they set up contests and competition among workers. More overt forms of gamification have proliferated during the past decade. For example, Microsoft has used the approach to entice workers to perform the otherwise sleep-inducing task of software debugging.

But Uber can go much further. Because it mediates its drivers’ entire work experience through an app, there are few limits to the elements it can gamify. Uber collects staggering amounts of data that allow it to discard game features that do not work and refine those that do. And because its workers are contractors, the gamification strategies are not hemmed in by employment law.

Kevin Werbach, a business professor who has written extensively on the subject, said that while gamification could be a force for good in the gig economy — for example, by creating bonds among workers who do not share a physical space — there was a danger of abuse. “If what you’re doing is basically saying, ‘We’ve found a cheap way to get you to do work without paying you for it, we’ll pay you in badges that don’t cost anything,’ that’s a manipulative way to go about it,” he said.

For some drivers, that is precisely the effect. Scott Weber said he drove full time most weeks last year, picking up passengers in the Tampa area for both Uber and Lyft, yet made less than $20,000 before expenses like gas and maintenance. “I was a business that had a loss,” said Mr. Weber, who is looking for another job. “I’m using payday loans.”

Still, when asked about the badges he earns while driving for Uber, Mr. Weber practically gushed. “I’ve got currently 12 excellent-service and nine great-conversation badges,” he said in an interview in early March. “It tells me where I’m at.”

You’ll want to click through to play with the interactive tools that compare wait times to the number of idle Uber drivers waiting in the area or other scenarios relevant to the “gig economy.

To explore this with students, you might ask:

  1. What are the ethical principles underlying Uber’s practice toward drivers?
  2. What ethical principles do you assume that your future employer might have?
  3. How does this article impact your interest in using Uber (and how might your age — if you are not old enough to have a driver’s license — affect your answer)?
  4. How does gamification motivate you?
  5. Do you think drivers know Uber is gamifying its app with them? How do you feel about that?
Decorate photo of silver award cups - publid domain from

Congratulations to co-PI Angie Oehrli!

Congratulations to our co-PI Angie Oehrli, who has been chosen to receive 2017’s LIRT Librarian Recognition Award.

From the ALA press release:

The Library Instruction Round Table (LIRT) of the American Library Association has chosen Jo Angela Oehrli, Learning Librarian at the University of Michigan, Shapiro Undergraduate Library as the 2017 recipient of the LIRT Librarian Recognition Award.  The Librarian Recognition Award was created to recognize an individual’s contribution to the development, advancement and support of information literacy and instruction.  Oehrli was chosen as the 2017 winner based on her contributions at the national, state and local levels in support of information literacy and instruction.  The award will be presented to Ms. Oehrli as part of the LIRT 40th Anniversary Celebration on Saturday June 24, 7-9 PM … during the ALA Annual Conference in Chicago.

Michael Saar, chair of the 2016 Awards Committee, noted Oehrli’s extensive leadership in promoting information literacy, program creation and her strong publication record as determining factors in the committee’s selection of her as this year’s winner.

Congratulations, Angie!

Image: Public domain from


Big Data to ID Texts from Teens in Crisis

Our team member Tasha Bergson-Michelson sent a link to this TED talk by Do Something CEO Nancy Lublin, pointing it out as a powerful example of harnessing large data sets (aka “Big Data”) to auto-analyze texts sent from teens who may be in crisis and, if needed, to prioritize those texts in the response queue.

What do you think of this as an example for teens of Big Data for good?

You can also view visualizations of the accumulated dataset here (21 million texts and counting) and via the interactive screenshot below.

Crisis Trends – Crisis Text Line via kwout

Is this a resource you would use with students? How?