Former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer
Steve Ballmer is using big data to help educate the US people about government statistics as an antidote to the fake news problemReuters

Former Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer has launched a database that will enable citizens to find out exactly what the US government is spending tax payers' money on.

Together with academics, economists and other professionals, Ballmer has spent the last three years since retirement working on a sophisticated data analytics engine that pulls in huge amounts of publicly available information about the revenue and expenditure from over 70 federal government, local and state government agencies.

The idea is that citizens can go to USAFacts.org and look up various statistics, such as to find out how many police officers are employed in towns, cities and states across the country, and then check those figures against crime rates in those areas.

Or let's say you wanted to know how much local governments earn from parking tickets, and weigh that against how much those pesky traffic wardens are paid to the do the job.

The website would be able to pull up those answers for you within seconds, and you can also read a report by the researchers. So if you're worried that what you are reading might be "fake news", then you can go and look up the answers yourself.

Information all comes from the US government

USAFacts website
USAFacts is a search engine where you can discover up-to-date information about government financial data, demographics and population changescreenshot by IBTimes UK

The information is all from data that the US government has released, because Ballmer wants to keep the project apolitical and unbiased. So if the US government can't legally report on a specific figure, such as the answer to: "How many firearms are there in the US?", then USAFacts can't either.

A team of researchers look for answers to questions, aided by the University of Pennsylvania, and the statistics are loaded into the database. The effort to gather all the information together has required Ballmer to spend $10m (£8m) of his own money on top of direct funding and grants, and he says he is happy to continue to fund it.

"You know, when I really wanted to understand in depth what a company was doing, Amazon or Apple, I'd get their 10-K [annual report] and read it," Ballmer told the New York Times.

The problem is, there isn't a 10-K on the US government. Statistics are published in various reports and quickly forgotten, but there has never been any unified approach to national data publishing and accessibility.

"I would like citizens to be able to use this to form intelligent opinions. People can disagree about what to do — I'm not going to tell people what to do... [but people should base their opinions] on common data sets that are believable," he said.

"We're making philanthropic donations elsewhere — I think of this as another. I don't even deduct this for my taxes. I pay this with after-tax money, no pretax money, because I don't want anybody being able to think that factors in. But I feel like it's a civic contribution more than anything else."