My guest on this episode is Poppy MacDonald. Poppy is the CEO of USAFacts, a not-for-profit data company founded by former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer to gather, organize and share data about the US government at the federal, state, and local levels entirely for free.
Many of you will know about my fascination with media and data companies, and this episode with Poppy is a continuation of that strong interest. But not only is Poppy’s story about running a super interesting data company, but also about growing an organization from 5 to 47 employees in less than 4 years. The company is very much a startup with everyone wearing multiple hats and driving to the same goal.
Through our conversation, Poppy and I talk about why government data can be so hard to find, building a data-centric, non-partisan organization, growing pains, the long-term vision for USAFacts, and why the company was compelling to her when Steve offered her the job.
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(4:03) – Poppy’s background and career
(7:29) – How did your experience in media at Politico transfer over to the world of Data?
(10:54) – What channels are you using to share and gather data?
(12:54) – What are your visions for further disseminating information to the broader US population?
(17:51) – As you work down from federal to county size to gather data, does it get harder as you go smaller?
(20:45) – How do you help governments & agencies gather their own data?
(25:12) – How does your team need to grow and evolve?
(28:28) – Where have you had growing pains when going from 5 or 6 to now nearly 50 people?
(33:25) – What team has been the most challenging to build within the company?
(35:33) – The importance of having patience while building USA Facts
(37:21) – What 5-10 year growth and marketing goals do you have for the organization?
(42:03) – Do you think your company could ever have a media side?
(44:53) – Are there any comparable companies to yours in other countries that you can learn from?
(48:06) – What’s been the most interesting or odd piece of data that’s been hard to get a hold of?
(50:09) – What college class would you teach if it could be on anything?
(51:28) – What’s a strongly held belief you’ve changed your mind on?
(52:35) – What’s the best business you’ve ever seen?
Alex Bridgeman: This is a business I’ve been really excited to learn more about ever since I saw it. And I can’t remember how I came across it, but it quickly became one of the most interesting businesses to me. And as we were talking earlier, the fact that there no revenue model and it’s all not-for-profit, I thought it was super fascinating. So, I would just love to hear a little bit more about, Poppy, your background first. Like what made this- what was your career beforehand, but also what made USAFacts interesting to you as kind of a next role for you?
Poppy MacDonald: Sure. So, I’ve had this winding career, I would say, but the common thread would be transparent access to information and a belief that citizens have the right to have access to public information about their government. And so early on in my career, I worked on Capitol Hill for members of Congress from Oregon and Washington, and I answered constituent mail, and I was a press secretary. I had the opportunity to work at Gallup, where I launched their World Poll, which gave access to information about people’s views and shared that back with decision makers and leaders. And then I was at Politico and launched their first subscription business, then Atlantic Media, and again, back at Politico as president. And I am super proud of that career, providing really great transparent reporting and information about what was happening in Washington to citizens and helping explain why it matters. When I got the call for USAFacts, they said the mission of USAFacts is to make government data accessible. And I thought that is something that doesn’t exist in this market. I knew from the perspective of being on Capitol Hill, where we had really small- relatively small teams to serve an entire state and to think about big national issues – I mean you’re looking at staff of 12 people in a House of Representatives office, or maybe 50 people for a Senator’s office – you just didn’t have the access or the technological ability on the team to get government data and to be able to leverage it in decision-making. I knew as a reporter when you’re on deadline and you’re trying to get out a story as quickly as possible, the time and effort it would take to access government data, it just wasn’t possible. And I thought, wow, what an opportunity to go and join this not-for-profit organization who has no agenda other than to take government data and make it accessible to people for decision-making to ground public debate and policymaking back in facts. And I think especially as misinformation has become a challenge, information has become a challenge. There’s so much information out there asking the public to be able to consume and keep up with it. And you’re asking a citizen who is hearing one side of the story, maybe from the incumbent politician, everything’s great, and from the challenger, everything’s awful, or turning on Fox and MSNBC and hearing completely different versions of what’s going on in the world, it’s not surprising that trust is at an all-time low in every major institution. And I think if we could get media coverage, if we could get politicians, no matter if they won’t agree on an issue, back to a starting point of like we’re all starting with the same basic set of facts, it’s a huge opportunity for this country. So, I was really excited about being part of that mission.
Alex Bridgeman: Yeah, no kidding. And how did your experience with Politico on the more media side transfer to now running what maybe more traditionally would be considered like a data business where there’s still kind of a “content angle,” but the content is now data and numbers instead of editorial and articles and other types of content. Like how different is that as a model within your operating seat?
Poppy MacDonald: Yeah, that’s a great question, Alex. So, when I joined, and USAFacts had been in existence for about just under two years, and what Steve and a very small team of about four people had done is take data from over 70 federal sources, brought all the data together, organized it, which you’re like, what do you mean organize it? Well, if you’re looking at an issue like poverty, you’re having to pull the data from Department of Agriculture for food stamps, Department of Education for head start, Health and Human Services for Medicaid, and you’re pulling Department of Housing and Urban Development to understand housing. You’re pulling from so many sources. So, to try to look at an issue and get a holistic picture, it’s challenging. You’ve got to take government data, which now is organized by agency, not by issue that people would care about or want to understand from like a holistic perspective, how does government provide services in those areas? Has funding gone up or down? Is it having a positive or negative impact? I mean, just sort of like a basic dashboard. It’s a big, heroic effort to collect all of that data and organize it and make it accessible. So, Steve and the team had done that. And then they had basically a few ways to access that information – a search bar, search for the data you’re looking for, an annual report that we do on behalf of the government. We do that every year. It’s mostly visuals with some texts, but it’s a picture of our country, revenue, spending, and progress in every major policy area, and that’s a hundred pages, and then a government 10-K, which if you’re familiar with the corporate 10-K, it’s about a 200-page kind of table view with a lot of numbers. But that was the way to access the information. And Steve at the time said, “Oh, I’m so disappointed. I’ve spent tens of millions of dollars and so much effort to bring this government data together for people, and they’re not using it.” And I think where my media background was really helpful at the time as like, ooh, that’s a lot of effort for people right now. There’s a search bar, but I may not even know what I’m looking for, a 100-page report or a 200-page report. We need to share with people, we’ve brought all this data together, so what? What’s interesting about that? How could that help me, help inform for me how my government is or isn’t serving me as a citizen? What I should advocate for, what change I want to see, or I don’t know if it’s happened. My politician tells me it is, the media says it isn’t. I want to look and confirm. How do we make that information really accessible and relevant based on what’s going on in the news right now? And so, I’d say, pivot one or stage one for where I wanted to take USAFacts is like we’ve got a lot of government data here, let’s start sharing what’s interesting.
Alex Bridgeman: And so, what are the channels, the main channels that you share that information through? So, just going to your website, it’s clear that there’s like visual dashboards. You can scroll now through lots of different data sets that’s very visual and easy to access. But I imagine there’s a lot of other channels behind the scenes where you’re sharing data in other ways. What are some of those channels?
Poppy MacDonald: Yeah, I mean, a few ways. So, you can go to USAFacts.org, and we have information organized by issues, so what are big topical areas, and you can look at articles we’ve written there. You can look at data visualizations, reports, some of the questions you should be asking as a citizen. We have a data section. So, it’s just if you’re looking for data or the numbers around any major issue in the country, you can look at things like crime and justice or taxes or education or health. We synthesize and collect all of the government data available, and then we do a special report. So, we still do our annual report on the government, our 10-K report for the government. But we also do smaller, I’d say, more digestible reports, like our State of the Union in numbers or our State of the Earth, which just came out. And then we do special features as well. So, for example, with the COVID outbreak, our small, but mighty team mobilized to prepare and visualize and share real-time COVID data down to the local level. So, we have USAFacts.org. We’re also on Twitter, we’re on Facebook, we’re on TikTok with videos, we’re on Instagram and Instagram Stories. And so, our goal is not only through USAFacts channels, but also through partnerships to make that data accessible to Americans either on the platforms where they already consume information or always at USAFacts.org as a trusted site to go and get the facts.
Alex Bridgeman: What are some of your visions for disseminating that information further? Because it sounds like you’ve done a pretty good job so far of going to companies to share data or certain areas of government and sharing that data there. How do you reach kind of the broad, like 330 plus million people in the US? I imagine that’s a totally different effort to try to reach like a majority of households and let them know that this data source exists. What are some timelines or visions you have for access or sharing this information with those folks and letting them know it is there?
Poppy MacDonald: Yeah, that’s a great question. So, I would say, first, just in terms of you’re right, we want to reach all 329 million Americans. When I joined at the end of 2018, the best I could measure, we had reached about 440,000 Americans. In 2019, we reached a million, 1.5 million. In 2020, we reached 12.5 million. And last year, we reached 20 million Americans. So we’ve seen really nice growth, but we’re still at a fraction of those 329 million. So, like how will we reach those people? I’d say we’re thinking about it in kind of three major strategic areas. One is more data. So, we started with these 70 federal sources of data. We added COVID data, which was very local. And for us, I think to make government data relevant, it’s got to be as close as someone’s backyard. Like I want to know what’s crime like in my neighborhood, and how has it changed? How are my schools serving my kids, and how does that compare to other schools in the country? And is my mayor doing a good job running my city or not? Are things getting better or worse? So, one would just be more data and getting it as local as possible. The second would be making our data and information more accessible. And I think that for us looks like two areas. One is just continuing to evolve USAFacts.org to make sure the navigation is really intuitive, it’s really easy to find through search the data you’re looking for, but it’s also ensuring that when somebody is asking for a question that can be answered in government data on Google, that we make that information accessible, that we’re optimizing for search. And it’s also looking for partners that already have big audiences and saying how can we work with you to make government data accessible? Some of those partnerships have looked like working with PBS News Hour and helping to provide government data for their reporting, or they showcase facts during their programming and helping provide that data or those visualizations, working with US News in the 2018 or the 2020 election and helping their reporters access government data based on what was being talked about in the candidate debates or during the election overall. And so, we’re constantly looking for who are organizations that we can partner with and provide value so that when citizens are reading information or on whatever platforms they’re on, that they have access to those trusted facts. And so, more data, more accessible, and then our third goal is more consumed. And right now, that looks like for us really ensuring we’re reaching already engaged citizens, so people who are voting and active in politics. It looks like adding government. We’ve had really nice reception from federal agencies, from members of Congress who say we haven’t had access to like a trusted source, that in a bipartisan way, we can all sit down with this data and start a public policy conversation. We want to do that more with government for two reasons. One, we want policy makers to leverage this data to make decisions that are good for all citizens, that are good for our democracy, and we think data can be a foundation for that. And two, as we look to really provide helpful government data, in the US there are over 90,000 local government entities collecting data, but there’s no standardization about what data they’re collecting, when they’re reporting it, or how they’re reporting it. So even Steve Ballmer, with all of his resources, if we hired 90,000 people and said, go forth and get that data, at worst, we would find a bunch of mismatched information that’s collected at different times, that was measuring different things, and it may not be all that helpful to moving our democracy forward. I think that’s our greatest fear. And so, we need government to be a partner in outlining, hey, this is the data that we need to be collecting, these are the metrics we should follow, this is the timeline for when it should be reported. And then USAFacts can be the helpful partner in making that accessible as a free public service.
Alex Bridgeman: Yeah, onto your point about just going after more and more data, especially at the local level, I’d imagine like a Zillow of government data where you can just go and see your school district or a crime and all this other stuff. As you work down the levels of government from federal, state, county, city, how much harder is each level to get data from? It sounds like it gets quite a bit harder as you work down. Do you think that’s the biggest hurdle for getting more data? Or is it the organizing after the fact of that data? Which one to you feels harder, feels like the harder thing to do right now?
Poppy MacDonald: Yeah, I think at the federal level, it’s the organizing because you have these 70 federal sources, and then you’re trying to organize them in a way that would actually inform decision making, make sense, and gather information across agencies together. At the local level, it’s the collecting. I mean, COVID as an example, early days COVID, we were going county by county. In some cases, a sheriff was reporting COVID data on their Facebook page, so we’d go get it from their Facebook page. In other cases, it was reported on a website, but it wasn’t machine-readable, so we were entering it into an Excel sheet. It got better over time, but it was a very manual effort going county by county and trying to figure out where that data was being reported and how we could get it and then make it accessible, and then offering an API so that other organizations could use that. In a very, I don’t know, strange thing we couldn’t have predicted, USAFacts became the provider of COVID data to the government. And I find that a little funny because we probably had 12 employees at the time and we were providing to the massive federal government, we were the official source for the CDC and the White House. It was super rewarding that we were able to fill that gap, but it was surprising, maybe not surprising to us, although even to us maybe a little surprising, that there just isn’t a system set up for local to state to federal reporting in a timely manner. And we see that when we publish our 10-K, which is the transparent reporting of finances for the government. We just did our 2020 10-K, and we were using 2019 data. That’s the latest available roll up at the local, state, federal. It’s unfortunate that the latest available is 2019 when we’re trying to make decisions in 2022. When you’re fighting a pandemic, well, there doesn’t exist three-year-old data or two-year-old data, and you need real-time information. But when those pipelines don’t exist, it really left our country in the lurch.
Alex Bridgeman: Yeah, no kidding. So is that a matter of these- because I remember you talked about this in one interview, where these government organizations aren’t designed for publishing of data or gathering of data. They’re designed to execute the mission that that agency has. How do you, as USAFacts, go to them and help them gather their own data? Is that a matter of giving them like at the most basic level like a spreadsheet and here’s all the line items we need to be filled in? Or is there some sort of software component that helps track it a little bit better, or integrations? Like what does that look like if you go into an agency that’s not used to gathering or publishing data? How do you help them?
Poppy MacDonald: Yeah, I’d say it’s in a few ways. One, I would say you go to the agency that is gathering the data and wants to provide it publicly, but it is not at the core of the mission. The Department of Housing and Urban Development, their mission is to provide affordable housing. It’s not make this data transparent and accessible to consumers. And so, we go and say, how do we get access to that data? Work with us. Fantastic, we’ll take it from here. In some cases, it is setting up a framework. So, for example, the 10-K that we do, and 10-K is something that the Securities and Exchange Commission requires publicly traded companies to report in a transparent way in a very specific format – what are their revenues? What are their expenses? How is their leadership set up? There’s a very specific format companies need to follow. We found it ironic the government doesn’t transparently report it to their shareholders, the taxpayers in America, the citizens. And so, we created the format. What would a 10-K look like for the government? How would we report that information? Now that that format exists, we think it’s a real opportunity for states to begin using that same format to transparently report it to their constituents, and then for counties to do that as well. And if we can get everybody using the same form, then our 2022 10-K wouldn’t be with 2019 data. It could be real time with the year that it’s being reported in. And then I guess the third way too would be partnering with government to set up those standards. When I testified on Capitol Hill last year to the Committee for the Modernization of Congress, I talked about when you are introducing a piece of legislation that you want to be passed, Congress has rules about it has to be scored by the Congressional Budget Office, it has to very clearly outline what is the cost going to be and where are the revenues going to come from? And then that legislation is measured by did it cost that much, and was it funded? I don’t think that is a good measure. That is one measure. I don’t think it’s a great measure of was that piece of legislation effective. Did it achieve the outcome we desired? I would love to see government say this is the issue we’re trying to solve, this is the data we know about how we’re doing as a country, this is the number we’re trying to move. Here’s how we’ll measure if it moves or not. If that data doesn’t exist, outlining this is the data that needs to be collected because this is what we’re trying to move, and this is how we’ll measure it, it would be great guidance for state governments trying to implement and understand what Congress intended through the legislation, and it would be a great guide for Congress where I think sometimes, it’s just that party passed it, we’re the new party in power, we don’t like it, so we’re just going to strike it down. How about did it work or not based on did the numbers move, and how do we need to adjust? I just think there’s such an opportunity for Congress to use data driven decision making. And by no means do I judge members of Congress in terms of are they trying to do the right thing for citizens? Yes. Do they have access to the data? No. Can USAFacts be a partner? For sure. Can government provide more of those resources to policymakers, to civil servants? Yes, I believe so. So, I’m really hopeful and I’m really excited that Representative or Chairman Kilmer and other members of Congress are starting to talk about how do we modernize Congress to make data-driven decisions like people who run companies?
Alex Bridgeman: So then to make some of that happen, it sounds like a lot of urging members of Congress to continue to push for those sorts of changes, but on the organization side, on the USAFacts side, what needs to happen to your team, and how does your team need to grow and evolve such that you can start making that data available as Congress starts to make that a priority?
Poppy MacDonald: USAFacts began, we originally partnered with a university who had collected a bunch of government data for the purpose of creating a financial model. And we quickly realized that was a great starting point, but we want to scale fast to be the definitive source of all government data. So, we have started building our own internal capabilities, our own data team, to be able to do that and be the partner for citizens of knowing that if there’s government data I need, I can go to one place, and that’s USAFacts.org. So, for us, that’s looked like hiring a Chief Technology Officer who has a background at Microsoft and Amazon, working with large amounts of datasets and starting to build the architecture and having a tech stack that can support ingesting, extracting relevant data and insights and automatically updating massive amounts of data that we’re offering at USAFacts.org. It’s looked like hiring a Head of Data Visualizations, Amanda Cox, who came from the New York Times to really think about how do we visualize this data in a way that’s relevant and helpful and provides context and can be a tool for citizens and policymakers to use. And it’s looked like hiring engineers who can build and automate scrapers and tools to grab that data. It’s looked like hiring analysts who can organize that data and ensure it’s usable by citizens. Its looked like building APIs so that it doesn’t- USAFacts, this is not our data. This is the citizens’ data. So, APIs where media companies, for-profit companies, not-for-profit companies, anyone who wants, can extract that data and leverage it in their own products and decision-making. And it’s looked like having people on the team who are about data quality and ensuring that the information that we’re providing is up to date, is accurate. And I think another part of that is just ensuring that we just provide the numbers. We don’t have- We don’t want there to be any bias. It’s just we’re here to provide the data, and we want people to leverage that data to advocate for what they believe will make our country operate more effectively and efficiently. We think the same set of data could allow people to argue for completely two different sides of like, hey, this is what we think will move the country forward, and that’s okay. We just think they need to start with the same set of data, and then we’ll watch the data to see if the policy that was chosen or the bill that was passed, if it works or it doesn’t work. But we do think it needs to fundamentally start from agreement on where we stand as a country by the numbers.
Alex Bridgeman: What have been some of your growing pains within this team? Like you said you started with only a handful of people, maybe a half dozen people, going from that to close to 50 people, what have been kind of the stages of that team growth? And where have you had growing pains and had to outgrow them? What’s that been like?
Poppy MacDonald: Yeah, that’s a good question. So, I’d say one, when you have five people, everyone just does everything. So, it’s like roll up your sleeves, today, you’re doing some marketing, tomorrow you’re going to create Excel spreadsheets, and on a third day, you’re, I don’t know, answering the phone because there’s five of us and we’re all doing everything. And I’d say our growing pains were where we did initially start being supported by third parties. So, we had a university partner helping with our data needs, and we had a website vendor partner helping to ensure we could share that information publicly. As we scaled in our ambition, in terms of the amount of data, being that definitive source of government data on our site, as we scaled in our ambition of like when something’s in the news, we want to publish something today, and having a vendor who’s like today? Well, we got to schedule that work, and it’s going to be a while. That was a growing pain. And then I think growing a team and going from everybody does everything to we’ve got to specialize and do what we do best and focus on our core job and talent. So, we went from five people do everything to having a product team, a marketing team, and an engineering team. I think in good ways, everyone’s opinion still counts. And we have a team who and I have an engineer who will say, “I read this piece of content. I’m concerned there’s bias in it, and this is why.” Everyone on our team cares super passionately about we are a nonpartisan source for just providing the facts and we’re watchdogs for one another. Sometimes, I’d say, we can get a little bit distracted on remembering trust your colleagues, point out if there are concerns or errors for sure, but at the end of the day, we have a job to do – empowering Americans with the facts – and we have to divide and conquer to do that efficiently and effectively. And it’s been, I guess, along the way, it’s been really fun, and it’s been quick change, and it definitely is that feels like a startup. We’re building the plane as we’re flying it. And we are just coming at it every day with a powerful mission. I don’t know. I feel really lucky when I read about the news of like during COVID, people were saying like, what do I go to work for? What’s the purpose? Does it matter? I never think that. I wake up every morning, saying, wow, I have like this huge responsibility, and that is ensuring that we are empowering Americans with the facts. And there are still- we reached 20 million Americans. We have 329 million to reach. And how are we going to do that? And how are we going to do it in a way that’s thoughtful for getting data that is helpful, and we’re presenting in a way that’s accessible, and we’re helping positively inform conversations. So I feel really fortunate.
Alex Bridgeman: Yeah, you mentioned having executives from New York Times, Amazon, Microsoft. That has to be an incredibly meaningful pitch for folks who have been in really high performing careers up to this point. That has to ring true to a lot of people.
Poppy MacDonald: I think it really does. Potentially, they’ve been at companies where there’s a focus on shareholder value and on revenue and on delivering customer value, and they’ve had really successful careers, but now they’re at a time where they want to pivot to how do I give back? What can I do to help America move forward? And I think people who join USAFacts, we are concerned that trust is at an all-time low, that it doesn’t always feel like we’re making progress as a country that we would like that has benefit for all citizens and to be part of the solution and to get to wake up every morning and come to work to do that. I mean, I will say it’s not a typical, hey, come work for not-for-profit and maybe what some people make up in their head – although I don’t think this is true – it’s going to be relaxed and fewer hours, kind of be quieter. I think they would probably say they’ve worked harder, as hard or harder, than any other job that they’ve had, but they’re doing it for a very clear purpose and mission, which is awesome.
Alex Bridgeman: Yeah, that is awesome. Of the different teams that you have in data visualization or like actual collecting of data or creating APIs, working on your website, what team has been you think the most challenging to create, just in terms of figuring out, making sure you have the right folks on board, but also that you have the right tools or you’re approaching the problem in the right way? What area do you feel like has been the most challenging?
Poppy MacDonald: Probably building an engineering team to support our ambition. I mean, as I was interviewing Chief Technology Officers, people would say that is so cool. How many thousands of people are you planning to hire? We have a daunting mission or a daunting task to execute on our mission of empowering Americans with the facts. And that’s like we want all government data, which includes these 90,000 local government entities where there’s no clear pipeline, and we want you to scale, to make that all available and ingest it into our platform and make sure it automatically updates and ensure that it is super usable on the front end, easy to search and find on our site. Oh, and easy to find on Google. Oh, and super easy for our partners to ingest through an API or through other means. And we have an engineering team of 14 super talented people. And so, I would say ensuring that for that team that we have the right talent, also that we’re prioritizing what’s the work that we can do now, how do we have the biggest impact for Americans and for our audience, and how do we scale that, but like in a smart and thoughtful way is a big, big job. So, I’m super grateful of that [inaudible 35:15] joined within Amazon and Microsoft background and has just wrapped their arms around it. And we have a small, but mighty engineering team who is really passionate about our mission and is willing to think about how to scale a small team to have big impact.
Alex Bridgeman: Yeah, it must be hard for yourself, your team, and Steve to be patient when you see all this opportunity for data to make big impacts, that must be a really hard thing to kind of reign yourself in from going too fast and overloading your team or putting too much stress on your team or hiring too fast. That it has to be a lot of restraint and patience there.
Poppy MacDonald: Absolutely. It’s thinking about what are we going to say no to, which I think is a challenge for a lot of businesses. Like how do we set our priorities and decide as much of what must we do, what must we not do? Because we’re going to get stretched too thin, and USAFacts has gotten lots of amazing opportunities that we simply cannot scale to support. And so, we really try to be disciplined about who are the audiences that we’re targeting. For example, we’re going for voters and government right now, but an audience we really would love to serve is education. We’d love to serve kids in schools. We see teachers using us on Google Classroom, and we’re like, how can we amplify that? How can we provide education about how to use data? We’d love to serve universities and ensure people in public policy programs have access to government data and think about it as a decision-making tool. Like there are so many other audiences we would love to reach and be providing custom solutions for. So, we’ve had to map this 10-year plan and say here’s who we can target. And obviously, our information is available for everyone, but I think we would love to build those custom tools and then a data roadmap that says what’s the data that we want to prioritize getting based on the issues that are really important for our country and creating that roadmap so that we’re scaling to have the biggest impact but at a rate that our team can handle.
Alex Bridgeman: What does that roadmap look like at 5 years and 10 years? Are there some goals that you’ve created so far for what data sets you want to have and the reach that you want USAFacts to be at at certain time points?
Poppy MacDonald: Yeah. I mean, it goes back to that framework of more data, more accessible, and more consumed. So, I’d say on the more data, the tenure is the definitive source for government data. You should never have to go somewhere else to get the data that you want. It’s all in one place, it’s at USAFacts.org. We’re not there yet. We have almost all federal government data. We are building the state. We’re building the local. And so, we have a roadmap, we’re starting with what is available and collected nationally. And then, what are states- going and getting the state data, and then continuing to add local, which I mentioned is a big lift. It’s going county by county or school district by school district or police department by police department. It’s a big lift. And then, the more accessible, we do want to be that one stop shop, we’re so easy to use, and that we’ve got APIs, we’ve got tools where it’s easy for citizens or policy makers to find the data they want, to visualize it and to share it. We do have those tools now, but really continuing to amplify that. And then more consumed, I mean, we do want to reach all American citizens, and so we will continue to expand that way.
Alex Bridgeman: Yeah. Just brainstorming all the different marketing- like the ways that you could market USAFacts. You could have like Super Bowl ads, you could have like a printed pamphlet that gets- like a few page pamphlet of the annual reports that’s mailed to every address in the country. You could have like different- somehow I don’t know if you could get like DMVs to give QR codes to USAFacts.com when someone gets a driver’s license. Like there’s probably some interesting ways that you could get data out there. What are some of the marketing side ideas that you’ve thought about for USAFacts or some interesting ways that you might be able to get the message out there?
Poppy MacDonald: That’s amazing. So you mentioned the Super Bowl commercial, and I will say in 2019, as we were gearing up for the 2020 election, Steve said, “We should do a Super Bowl commercial.” We’re like, “The Super Bowl?” And he’s like, “No, our Super Bowl, the presidential debate.” And so, for the 2020 campaign, we ended up filming a commercial or a couple of commercials called Change the Story, and they featured real American citizens and data about what was going on in the country and just reminded people, like empowered with data, you can impact the country. You can possibly change the story. And we aired that around the presidential debate. And so that was a lot of fun to be a part of. We had a man reading to a son and then looked at reading literacy in the country, and they’re not great numbers. But everybody can do something. I think reminding people like you are empowered, you can create positive change in just a series of vignettes. So, that was a lot of fun to be a part of. And then we go to Politicon, which is this national conference of people who are- like Comic-Con where people are passionate about comics, these are people who are passionate about politics from all sides of the aisle. So, we’ve had a booth there. We’ve given chances for people to come and learn about and take our annual report or come and play with our data or come and have conversations with us about data that they’re passionate about. So having a physical presence at things like the National Conference of State Legislatures, where we’ve gone to engage with state representatives and state senators and make sure they had access to these tools. Spending time on Capitol Hill, I think we’ve met with over 500 lawmakers on Capitol Hill. And so, I’d say it’s a mix of thinking about how we reach people with a physical presence and then how we reach people digitally. So, just getting started on TikTok in the last year and creating TikTok videos and building that community. Getting started on Instagram a couple of years ago and doing partnerships to ensure that data could be visually shared in a compelling way to people who are on that platform. We’re experimenting in all sorts of ways. I would say, always open for creative ideas. It sounds like you have some great ones for us, Alex.
Alex Bridgeman: That’s too kind, I don’t about that. Do you think USAFacts could ever have a media side to your business where there’s newsletters, podcasts, maybe have some sort of editorial, or maybe you have a live TV channel or a YouTube channel of some kind? Is there a vision that includes a media angle that might help fulfill your mission of getting data into the most hands as possible? Perhaps like being your own media engine might help part of that. Is that something that’s potentially in the vision, or is there maybe a different direction you view media?
Poppy MacDonald: Yeah, that’s a great question. So, when I originally came and said we need to start sharing more of what’s interesting in this data, we do that through articles. So, we publish somewhere between two and four articles a week based on what’s going on in the news, and then bringing together government data that could shine a light or shine a counterintuitive perspective. So, we publish articles weekly. We have a weekly newsletter. I think we have about 160,000 subscribers, and that brings together what’s the latest from new government data that’s available on our site to new content that’s available. And we try to make that really relevant and timely. And then, we have had a podcast with an organization called Numbers Geek, and we ran that. It featured Steve talking with the editor at Geek Wire, but the podcast was called Numbers Geek about different topics, education, healthcare, et cetera, based on what we knew about government data. So, we have experimented with podcasts. We do have a YouTube channel. I will say we are- we’re not as committed to regularly producing videos, which I know is really important. It’s just a lot of work and time and effort. In our small team, we’re not able to completely commit to that channel, but I could see expanding that in the future. But some of the videos we have there is Steve has done an annual shareholders’ call, which is a video where he goes through for the shareholders of America, here is a picture of your government in numbers. And so, we have- and then we chop that down. If you’re looking- it’s an hour-long shareholder call, we chop that down if you’re looking for a segment just to know more about education or healthcare, you can consume that in two to five minutes, I would say. Yeah, I mean, all great ideas, Alex. And we do, in full disclosure, our marketing team is five people, so they are also small, but mighty, and constantly thinking about how do we provide more information in different ways. We know some people like to consume a written piece of content. Some people prefer a data visualization. Some people want to watch a video. Some people want to listen to a podcast. And so just thinking about how do we provide as many forms as possible.
Alex Bridgeman: Are there any comparable organizations like USAFacts in other countries that you can model off of, or governments that have more transparent data publishing systems that you can take lessons from or formats from? Like who do you study as head of USAFacts for ideas on distributing government data?
Poppy MacDonald: That’s a good question. So, I know there are countries like Canada, I believe the Netherlands, that have like a government agency dedicated to statistics. And so, that government entity is just responsible for collecting all the data and information for the country and making it accessible and usable. So, I think that’s interesting. We’ve seen on Reddit where there are governments who when people receive their, hey, these are the taxes you owe, there is an accounting of you paid $20,000 in taxes, and here’s where that went. This much went to education. This much went to healthcare. This much went to veterans. And it’s a counting of how your dollars were spent. And we’ve seen people say, oh, I wish there was something like this for the United States. And people say go to USAFacts for this. So, I think there are some countries who are ahead of where the US government is on doing it. I don’t know if anyone in the US doing something similar to what USAFacts is doing.
Alex Bridgeman: So on USAFacts, is there a calculator where you can throw in your salary or taxes paid, and it will show you like in your dollars of your salary or taxes, here’s where like the proportional amount went?
Poppy MacDonald: Not yet, but we want to do it. We’re wondering will people feel comfortable providing that information. But that is something that we would love to offer. You can definitely see where does the government- How does the government- We have a spend key which is a visualization of what are the revenue sources for the government? And I think people find it really interesting to see like, oh, corporate taxes are a pretty small percent; depending on the year, they can get between like 9 and 11% of total government revenues. Personal income tax is the majority. You can look at what are the revenue sources for government, and then how are those dollars spent. And you can drill down as deep as you want, and you can see kind of the big buckets, education, healthcare, et cetera, but then you can drill down. You can see it for the country, not yet for I paid this much in taxes, how would that break down? But I think it’d be pretty easy. Maybe my engineers would not be happy I said it was easy. But to create something like that, we’ve got the numbers for it, we’ve got the math.
Alex Bridgeman: Yeah, that’d be really cool. Because it would be- I mean, you don’t need people to submit their tax returns or upload them to get that info, but you could just have like a sliding scale, almost like a mortgage calculator, something like that, where you could just have this free like enter a number or whatever, and it just spits out- it could be kind of a cool like anchor content as well. Like something that people could just kind of go to for fun and just see where all their money went. I would love to see that.
Poppy MacDonald: Awesome. Okay, we’re going to get on it.
Alex Bridgeman: That’d be awesome. What’s the- one final question before closing questions I’d love to ask you about is, what’s been the most interesting or odd piece of data that has been like the hardest to get a hold of? What’s that odd story where someone had to spend three weeks getting some random piece of data, and they had to drive to their office or something like that? What’s that weird story of getting odd pieces of data?
Poppy MacDonald: I think the first one was in COVID, that we were going to sheriffs’ Facebook pages to get COVID data. That seemed a little odd. The second one was when I started, on someone’s desk were all these CDs piled like super high. And I was like, what? What are those CDs for? And they said, oh, that’s how the IRS shares government data with us. And I’m like, why? They’re like, oh, for security, like they’re password protected. But they showed me that when they’re mailed, they basically – not to pick on the IRS, they don’t do this anymore – but they came in kind of a folio where you’d open it and the CDs were on one side and the password was on the other. And there was no confidential information. Like the taxpayer’s identity was protected, but obviously it’s, I guess, valuable data. But I just found that so odd that like in this modern era, they were coming on CDs and none of our computers have a way to download that information. So, if you thought about a citizen of America, let alone a policy maker, saying, oh, let’s go grab that IRS data, well, they have to make a request, it gets mailed to them. It’s on CDs. They have to find like a CD-ROM or some sort of device to be able to like upload that data onto a computer. It shines a light on why government data is publicly accessible, but it’s still really hard to get access to.
Alex Bridgeman: That’s an awesome one. Moving into closing questions. What college class would you teach if it could be about any subject you wanted?
Poppy MacDonald: I recently sat in on a conversation with some Stanford Business School professors who wrote a book, but they teach a class there on interpersonal dynamics, which they said was also known as like the touchy-feely course, which maybe is slightly creepy in that name. And in some ways, I was surprised, like really? Do you have to teach a class on interpersonal dynamics? And in other ways, I was like, well, how could you think about leading a business without having that skill? And I think on that same vein, I don’t know that people who are going to business school are thinking about how important selecting, retaining, and supporting great managers are to their business. And so, I think I’d like to teach a class on why managers matter, how you select great managers, what qualities there are, why that’s fundamental to your business. Maybe it’s well known now, but people hire- I mean, people join companies, they leave managers, and I’m not sure that people give a lot of thought to how important managers are. And so, I’d probably teach a class on that.
Alex Bridgeman: That’d be an awesome one. What’s a strongly held belief you’ve changed your mind on?
Poppy MacDonald: I don’t know if this is a strongly held belief, but it’s something I did- it’s an assumption I made, which is that civil servants and policymakers had access to government data and used that to make decisions. And so, I was really surprised to learn that the government data isn’t accessible to the people who I would assume would be using it and needing it every day to drive their decisions. I know that was really surprising to Steve when he left Microsoft and was looking to, from a philanthropic perspective, lift kids out of poverty. And he said, I want to understand what government programs exist. And six months later, he was finally able to gather that data. And he was saying like, where is the government’s 10-K? Like I’ve been having to sign and do one of these for all these years at Microsoft. Like, where’s that for government? And so, it was surprising to him. It is thankfully what inspired him to start and fund USAFacts. And it was surprising to me.
Alex Bridgeman: Yeah, no kidding, that is surprising. Last question, what’s the best business you’ve ever seen?
Poppy MacDonald: So, I mean, I think I’m thinking about that as a perspective of like having been a part of. And is it the best, most profitable business that has ever existed? I don’t know, but in terms of like having an impact on me and challenging maybe my conventional wisdom about how businesses are run or the right way to run a business, I would say it’s working inside of a company called the Advisory Board. They had the Advisory Board and the Corporate Executive Board, and the business was based on the sharing of best practices and sort of the rising tide lifts all boats sort of model. And so, their two values were forces of intellect by everyone sharing the challenges that they’re facing and then finding out like what are the most innovative strategies happening inside of- for my Advisory Board, it was hospitals and health systems that can benefit all health care, that can deliver better patient care, that can deliver revenue to support the latest technologies and innovations. And the second piece of that, which I think was the sort of the most mind-blowing of it, was spirit of generosity. And if you think like spirit of generosity, that would, in theory, be the revenue pillar of the business. And it was really counter-intuitive. It was like the engine that will drive our revenue is just leading with being generous, and generous meaning just constantly thinking about how can we add value to our customers? How can we be of service? And it was never about charging more or nickel and diming or asking for more. It was like the more that the customers needed, the more we would give. We should never think about charging more for that. And the revenue would follow. Like that revenue would come. So, it was like the revenue was kind of the trailing caboose and the engine that was powering it was this spirit of generosity. Let’s just think about how we give and provide and provide surplus value and just do everything we can to meet our customers’ needs. And don’t worry about the money. That’ll come. And I love that, that belief and that value.
Alex Bridgeman: Yeah, that’s an awesome one. Well, thank you so much, Poppy, for coming on the podcast and sharing all about USAFacts. I find the business super fascinating, so I’m so glad we were able to have a conversation. Thank you for sharing; this has been really, really fun.
Poppy MacDonald: Thanks for the invitation, Alex. It was really nice to have a conversation.
Poppy is the CEO of USAFacts, a not-for-profit data company founded by former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer to gather, organize and share data about the US government.