Raw Data By P3 Adaptive
Trustworthy Data for a Healthy Democracy, w/ USAFacts’ Poppy MacDonaldListen Now:
Hello friends! On this episode, we sit down with Poppy MacDonald, President of USA Facts, to learn about the process of breaking down governmental silos for data without bias. You may have seen some of their data during the extended pandemic, but you may not have known how much work went into providing just the facts without the opinion . . . or how small the team was behind the scenes. You will find no clickbait here, for Poppy, it’s all about the facts.
While Poppy doesn’t mention a specific moment when her data gene emerged, she has admittedly always been data-driven. As a partner at Gallup Inc, she was responsible for launching World Poll where every voice counts, and assumptions don’t matter. That experience led her to her current position as an advocate for transparency of and ease of access to public data.
Poppy’s philosophy is that our democracy can be stronger if it’s data-driven. With that mantra in mind, she seeks to empower citizen stakeholders and representatives alike within our government. With Poppy at the helm, USA Facts created the State of the Union in Numbers to provide a non-partisan summary of the most pressing issues facing the nation.
Under Poppy’s tutelage, USA Facts has grown exponentially and has taken the top spot for reliable data and statistics. While some sources remain elusive, the facts you find on the site will be verified and accurate to give you the tools you need to make data-driven decisions when it matters most. After all, you must have trustworthy data for a healthy democracy.
Also on this episode:
Rob Collie (00:00:00): Hello, friends. Today's guest is Poppy MacDonald, president of USAFacts, which is a Steve Ballmer funded nonprofit organization dedicated to making factual data about the United States available to its own citizens. So, even though there isn't revenue involved, this is someone who is very much in the data business, in the business of clarity and communication. And like a lot of people who've been on this show, she comes from a background that is outside of data. Before she was president of USAFacts, before Steve Ballmer recruited her away, she was president and COO of Politico. She has spent a lot of time in the halls of government. She's testified to the United States Congress.
Rob Collie (00:00:46): Her organization, USAFacts, found itself in the unexpected position of being the official provider of COVID data back to the CDC. And you know that human element thing? Well, this is one of the most thoughtful and warm people I have ever met. Even in the emails we were exchanging setting this up, it was so amazingly apparent how much she cared about the person on the other end of that email, just leapt off the page. I think you'll hear a lot of that in the way she talks about the people that she works with and it's the example that inspires me to be better.
Rob Collie (00:01:24): And along those same lines, this is someone that Steve Ballmer himself hand-picked to run an organization that is personally very important to him. And you all know the story, right? Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer met at Harvard. These aren't exactly humble origin stories, Bill and Steve, but Poppy does not come from that set. I won't spoil it. I'll let you hear the full story straight from her, smart, human, and very much on the front lines of data. So, let's get into it.
Announcer (00:01:57): Ladies and gentlemen, may I have your attention please?
Announcer (00:02:01): This is the Raw Data by P3 Adaptive Podcast with your host, Rob Collie, and your co-host, Thomas LaRock. Find out what the experts at P3 Adaptive can do for your business. Just go to p3adaptive.com. Raw Data by P3 Adaptive is data with the human element.
Rob Collie (00:02:24): Welcome to the show, Poppy MacDonald. How are you today out in fine Seattle?
Poppy MacDonald (00:02:30): I'm doing well. Thank you so much for having me on.
Rob Collie (00:02:33): We've been looking forward to this for so long. Pleasure's ours. Trust us. Let's start here, Poppy. Tell us your job title and tell us about USAFacts. What's the high level of mission there?
Poppy MacDonald (00:02:43): Yeah, I'm the President of USAFacts and USAFacts, our mission is to empower Americans with the facts. So, we take 70 sources of government data, bring them all together at USAFacts.org, and try to make it really easy and simple for Americans to access data and information and context on issues they care about and understand by the numbers, "Is our country headed in the right or wrong direction?" We don't take a position on that at USAFacts. We are just here to be a resource for the data.
Poppy MacDonald (00:03:13): We want to empower our citizens and lawmakers to look at the numbers and judge for themselves, "Are we headed in the right or wrong direction?", and advocate for the change they want to see and then follow the numbers to see, "Did that work? Did voting for that individual create the change they wanted to see? Did supporting that legislation create the change they want to see?"
Poppy MacDonald (00:03:34): And we want government to get to data driven decision making in government and we want citizens as they feel like they don't know who to trust as they turn on MSNBC and Fox and hear completely different versions of what's going on or from the incumbent that everything's great in this country and from the challenger that everything's a mess and they're saying, "I don't know who to trust anymore. I don't feel like I understand what is actually going on in this country." And we want them to have that trusted resource at USAFacts.org to just see by the numbers what's going on.
Rob Collie (00:04:06): That's certainly a very easy emotional mission to agree with. We've heard the phrase alternative facts. That has been entered into the lexicon. It's a scary time. I read a while ago there was something about in ancient times, rulers had access to information and no one else did. And that was a form of power. But today, it's more like the people who know things know what they can ignore. Everyone's got access to lots of information. It's no longer sole monopolize access information, but the noise, the noise to signal ratio is so high. Which ones to trust is the key. That's crucial.
Rob Collie (00:04:44): And as someone who has multiple times in the past tried to connect to government data, the thing that you would think is the most neutral, the most bedrock. Oh, my gosh. If they tried to deliberately obfuscate it, it wouldn't come out any harder to use than the way that they publish it. I've been through the decoder rings and sometimes the decoder rings have decoder rings, even though it's in theory, all government data is completely transparent. Mm-Mm, not even for data professionals. So, do you know when USAFacts was founded? When did it spring into existence?
Poppy MacDonald (00:05:20): Well, it officially sprung into existence April of 2017, but the idea for it came before that and that was when Steve was retiring from Microsoft to CEO in 2015. And he, from a philanthropic perspective, wanted to do more to help lift kids out of poverty. Being a numbers person, he wanted to look at the data before he made any decisions about, "How could I invest my personal fortune in a thoughtful way and help lift kids out of poverty?" And so, he asked a few folks on his finance team at Microsoft, "Hey, will you pull the numbers for me? I want to understand of the revenue that government collects, how much is spent on anti-poverty programs and are they working?"
Poppy MacDonald (00:06:01): And he wanted to see where are the gaps and those folks said, "Yeah, give us a couple weeks. We'll pull that data for you." Six months later, they finally were able to bring that data together for Steve. And that was a light bulb moment for him. If it's this hard for me as a citizen with a lot of resources to get information from our government, which is technically publicly available, but it's not easy to pull together.
Poppy MacDonald (00:06:24): And when you're looking at something like poverty, you've got data that's in multiple federal agencies. You're going to Department of Housing for public housing assistance. You're going to HHS to get information about Medicaid. You're going to Department of Agriculture for food stamps to Department of Education, right? It's not only siloed in a bunch of federal agencies, but then also you're trying to look at, "What are the local state and federal programs and how do those all boil up?" It's incredibly complex.
Poppy MacDonald (00:06:53): And so, our job at USAFacts is let's make it easy. You have a lot of sympathy for voters, for lawmakers, right? I mean, lawmakers have really small staff. When you think about a Senator or a member of Congress, they're going to have 20 to 50 staff members. They don't have the ability, right? If it's six months of effort to pull data on issue that they're considering, what's the right decision to make based on the numbers? And so, we just want to be that easy source.
Rob Collie (00:07:22): Yeah. There's a story that I told in my book and it's almost like a legend at Microsoft. You mentioned Steve, this team pulling data for him. When we were working on a big business intelligence initiative, it was a multi-divisional effort at Microsoft. The database team was involved. The office team was involved. There was another team involved. There was a meeting with Steve that I was not invited to. Mostly, they kept me away from the executives when I was there. I did meet Steve once. Maybe we'll get to that, but Steve wanted to know what the mission was about, this business intelligence initiative.
Rob Collie (00:07:54): And someone said, "Well, here's an example. If someone asked you, 'Which product lines increased in revenue by more than 10% year over year in the South American region?', you wouldn't be able to answer that." And Steve's like, "Yes, I can." And they said, "Oh, really? Show us." They were expecting him to turn to his computer and show them a business intelligence system that they weren't aware of that Microsoft was using. Instead, Steve started calling people's names and doors started opening. People started running into the room and he's like, "Okay, give me this answer and this answer and this."
Rob Collie (00:08:33): So, all these people then went off to Excel and he sat there and was like, "Yeah, they'll be back here in a few minutes and we'll have the answer," right? And so, it ended up still being prove the point situation. What they were saying was that we'll build systems that would make that information at your fingertips, same team of people that were in that legendary story that I've been telling for years, that same team that I'm sure that he sent off on this two-week mission that turned into six months.
Poppy MacDonald (00:08:58): Then he couldn't get the facts from government. And also, government, the Securities and Exchange Commission had required Microsoft to publicly report all of their data in a very transparent uniform way. And for him as CEO and to have to sign his name and say, "These are accurate data," they do it through the 10K, right? And so, he said, "Where's government's 10K? They've been making me do this as a publicly traded company and providing this information to my shareholders. What about taxpayers who are shareholders in this country? And why aren't they doing their own 10K?"
Rob Collie (00:09:32): Yeah, no one makes them.
Thomas LaRock (00:09:36): I don't even feel that we're worthy to interview Poppy. I'm just amazed.
Rob Collie (00:09:42): You were on a podcast and I listened to it. One of the things that was so encouraging and inspiring to me was that having met you and knowing what your job was, I've always assumed the existence of aristocracy that was being groomed from birth for big positions. Their parents were all in stolen bones at Yale, like the eighth generation, and I grew up very middle class, borderline blue collar family. Definitely was not of that set. I just immediately plugged you into that aristocracy from birth type of picture. On the podcast, it turned out nope, I was wrong. You weren't part of that tradition. For me, personally, really, really inspiring. Is there anything about that that you can elaborate on for us?
Poppy MacDonald (00:10:26): Yeah. I mean, I would just say in terms of making me a more thoughtful person as I look at data and have a conversation, I mean, at USAFacts, we talk about diversity of experiences and backgrounds really adds to the richness of our conversations. So, yeah, I was born to parents who were 19 and 20. They weren't married, definitely weren't planning to have a kid, and they worked blue collar jobs. I lived in HUD subsidized housing with my mom. I moved to schools every year as my mom... You would call that housing insecure, but we didn't have a stable place to live, right? We were jumping around. I got to go to college, thanks to big scholarship and from my private school Scripps College, but also, I took advantage of every federal program.
Poppy MacDonald (00:11:12): And sometimes Steve will say, "There's the Staff or there's the [inaudible 00:11:15], you have to be pretty poor to get that." And it's like, "Well, I got that." I don't know how poor I was. I felt I always had food to eat on the table, but I had to work very hard, right? And I think that really helps me as I look at the data and think about what people are experiencing is to bring my own personal background and experience to those numbers and what that means and what's that's like to be a person experiencing that. But I also think it gave me a lot of grit. Whoa, we want to reach 329 million Americans and I'm the sixth hire and we're just going to have to be scrappy and roll our sleeves and to be like, "It's possible."
Poppy MacDonald (00:11:53): I'll also say, I'm the American dream making more than my parents when I was pretty young. And I mean, my first salary was $19,000. I had $15 of discretionary income when I worked on Capitol Hill. So, I won't say I was just like rolling in it by no means. I've been able to go to college and build that life. I will also say I'm super eyes wide open looking at the data that the American dream is just not achievable through hard work and rolling up your sleeves for everybody, because there are a lot of obstacles and it's super hard to get ahead right now. So, eyes wide open in all of those ways.
Rob Collie (00:12:26): The intersection of hard work and luck, so much is luck. Even your own personal composition is luck. You didn't do it. As Tim Minchin famously said in his graduation speech, "You didn't make the parts of yourself that pulled yourself up by your bootstraps." You can't even claim responsibility for that. So, there's a humility that comes with that. And one of the themes that we've had on this show for a long time now is you see the movie Ratatouille?
Poppy MacDonald (00:12:49): Yeah.
Rob Collie (00:12:49): The concept in that movie of a chef can come from anywhere is so powerful and the critic in that movie that changes his mind, because originally, the counter statement was anyone can cook. That's probably a little bit of an exaggeration too. Not everyone is meant to be a great chef, but they land on that final compromise, which is a chef can come from anywhere. Almost everyone that works at our company has this unlikely story about how they came to where they're at.
Rob Collie (00:13:16): My friend and mentor at Microsoft, David Gainer, who's been on the show, he was like an English major in college. And when he was my boss, he was running Excel. And I think my study of philosophy and psychology in college was more relevant to my career than the computer science that was nominally my major. I really appreciate you sharing that. So, many of our stories are like that and so few of us are born into aristocracy. It's by definition the outlier.
Thomas LaRock (00:13:43): Oh, by the way, I looked you up on LinkedIn, Poppy. So, be on the lookout for a connection for me.
Poppy MacDonald (00:13:49): Awesome.
Thomas LaRock (00:13:50): You were at Politico before this. I'm curious to know what is your data origin story. Because when I look at your experience on LinkedIn, well, it's media, it's Politico. How'd you end up being basically in charge of the archives? I am just amazed that the job you have, the role you have, and what USAFacts does. I'll stop gushing over you.
Rob Collie (00:14:12): What is that story? I've been very curious about that myself. How did you get picked for this? Did men in black show up in helicopters?
Poppy MacDonald (00:14:20): Pretty much, it was just like that. I can tell you just my career history, which it might be like, "Whoa, what's she doing in this job?" But I would say the common arc would be making information transparent and accessible to the public, whether that was when I started on Capitol Hill and I was answering constituent mail or working with the media and helping explain what's happening in Washington and why that matters to you or how it impacts your life.
Poppy MacDonald (00:14:44): So, from Capitol Hill to working at Gallup where I started the World Poll and we were going and collecting the same data in 190 countries every year, so that we could look at that data to understand, "Are those countries headed in the right or wrong direction? How do they compare to their peers?", to then going into media in Washington, D.C., where it was about having reporters, collecting information about what was happening in Washington that the public should know about. And so, I got a call from a headhunter and they said, "Hey, would you ever consider a job in Seattle?" And I said, "I'm from Oregon, I'm from the Pacific Northwest. And I've been trying to figure out how the heck I would get back there for 22 years. So, that would be really interesting."
Poppy MacDonald (00:15:27): And then they said, "Would you ever consider not for profit?" And I said, "Well, that's the dream. At the same time, I'm the breadwinner for my family. So, I'm not sure if that's going to work." And they're like, "Well, it might. So, why don't you consider talking to this organization? We can't tell you exactly who it is or what it is."
Poppy MacDonald (00:15:45): And when I started learning more about the mission of USAFacts, which was to make government data accessible, I realized like that doesn't exist and I know that from working on Capitol Hill, from working in media. That if you are trying to quickly respond to a constituent or get your member of Congress information as they're about to vote or for a reporter who's working in this incredibly fast paced news environment and trying to publish quickly, a trusted source to go to for the facts for government data, it doesn't exist. And I thought what an opportunity to have a differentiated value proposition for the public and to continue that mission of making information accessible.
Poppy MacDonald (00:16:27): And for Steve, why me? Definitely not because I was a data wonk, although I'll say, I can't imagine running the media company Politico without access to data. So, data was a huge part of, but it was really more from a P&L perspective, I would say. So, it's not that I'm not used to working with numbers, but I'm not a data wonk. But what he was frustrated about at the time was I've built this incredible resource. I've brought all this government data together and people aren't using it. I want citizens to know it exists and to take advantage of it because I didn't build this as a vanity project.
Poppy MacDonald (00:17:01): I built this to be a resource that is utilized for data driven decision making that I think will lead to a better democracy. So, how do we get people to use it? And so that I think is where I was able to come in and start thinking about, "How do we create products and experiences and share what's interesting in this government data in a way that people say, 'Huh, who knew? I never realized I want to go and check out that and I can start using that as a resource.'"
Rob Collie (00:17:27): We need to introduce you to the concept of a wordagami.
Poppy MacDonald (00:17:28): Okay, cool.
Rob Collie (00:17:32): It's a word we made up, stolen from someone else's made up word. So, this will show you just how much of a data wonk I am. We take every final transcript of this podcast. We have it professionally transcribed and then we feed it into a Power BI model with all the other transcripts. And we identify words that had never appeared in the podcast until that episode. I think wonk, I think you've scored a wordagami and we're like 80 episodes in now. So, scoring wordagami has become more and more difficult to be just deep in the game and to register one in the first 15 minutes. There was a scoreboard ringing somewhere.
Poppy MacDonald (00:18:13): Okay. Exciting.
Rob Collie (00:18:13): Thank you for that.
Poppy MacDonald (00:18:13): Thank you.
Rob Collie (00:18:16): You had no idea you were going to be scoring on some unknown metric today. That's really neat. At what point in that process did you find out that it was Steve Ballmer behind it all? How long did they keep that secret, that this organization that's doing this thing? When did the curtain pull back?
Poppy MacDonald (00:18:32): I want to say it was fairly early and I'd done a round with the headhunter. And then I got introduced to a few folks who worked for Steve and then it wasn't until I'd passed that gauntlet that I had the opportunity to interview directly with Steve.
Rob Collie (00:18:47): Right. And when you're interviewing with the handful of people that work with him, at that moment, you know more about the Oregon. By the way, in my one meeting with Steve at Microsoft, it was like three of us that met with Steve. It was really cool. We were just sitting there in this conference room, waiting for him to show up and we're all watching the door. That's what people do. They come in through the door. Nope, not Steve. The entire wall behind us at some point just slid back. The whole wall was on rollers and Steve walks into the conference room from the flank. He came in from behind us. We're like, "Of course, of course. Why would you use the door?" None of us had any idea that that wall was movable.
Poppy MacDonald (00:19:31): That's wild. That's a grand entrance.
Rob Collie (00:19:33): Yeah. So, talk about pulling the curtain back, I interacted with Steve once and Bill once. I was undeserving to be in the room both times. I was young, naive. I'm still growing, but I had a lot of the growth that's happened since then. I really could have used at those moments. And my meeting with Steve, he'll remember this probably because we were talking about XBRL, this format for reporting 10Ks, and whether or not Excel was going to be invested in it. And he called me out. He was like, "Look, you, Excel. Why are you here talking to me if you haven't decided? I need you to decide and then let me know." And he even quoted poetry to me.
Rob Collie (00:20:12): I needed essentially a scolding, but he gave it to me in such a way that I wanted to be better. And I left that room so bummed that I wasn't going to get to interact with him anymore, because I knew I was going to get so much better if I was around him. I really appreciated that interaction. It was just a tiny little touch point. And I was actually hoping to run into him when I was in your office. I was going to tell him this. He challenged me to be better and I needed that in my life.
Poppy MacDonald (00:20:34): I'll see him tomorrow. So, I'll totally mention it to him. And yeah, he did something similar for me. He kicked me in the ass. I don't know how to review. I'd been there a couple years and he was like, "Hey, when in your life has the buck stopped with you? I'm making up a story that you always think you have to seek my approval or my permission." And he is like, "This is your organization." And hello, 100% of it is him funding me, but he is like, "It's your organization? You know more about it than I do. Don't wait to ask my permission. If you want my advice, I can be your advisor, but this is your organization. Just do it." I thought that was an awesome kick in the ass.
Rob Collie (00:21:06): Being someone who's in a former life, I was up to my eyeballs in actually crunching data. As CEO of this organization, I certainly use data. I understand your analogy from Politico, but I'm not in the trenches hands on crunching data most of the week. I still dabble here and there. For example, the creation of the wordagami model. I mean the world needed that, right? When I first heard about your organization, I naturally applied, I'm going to keep using the phrase, my data wonk lens and going, "Oh, they're making this queryable database in the sky that allows me to connect to and add this into my own analyses." And seeing where you're at today, I think you've taken a much more eyeballs oriented approach.
Rob Collie (00:21:49): It's a much more user friendly, human focused rather than query focused front end. And I respect that. It's not that I thought that was the right thing. It was just that was my first instinct that's what you were probably doing, my own personal experience of trying to go and get certain data. So, even one data source, just one government data source ended up being more work than it was worth and that was really discouraging.
Rob Collie (00:22:14): And so, to go and go after all of them or 70 of them, well, we should talk about what's in and out of scope today, what the roadmap looks like. To take on 70 of them on an ongoing basis, that's a real operation. I believe that would be a mistake, by the way, taking my original view of your mission. Was there ever any debate about that, making that a core part of the mission, being queryable versus eyeballs?
Poppy MacDonald (00:22:35): I mean, there was definitely a debate of there are different models that we could adopt and one would be more of like a B2B. We're just a big source of massive amounts of data and we feed it out through an API and we let other organizations take that data and then query it, create the stories, use it for their own purposes. And in some cases, we still offer that. With COVID, we set up an API of all of our COVID data and we had Bank of America and Walmart and Feeding America and the Department of Defense and the Centers for Disease Control sucking in our data, making it available either to the public or using it to make decisions.
Poppy MacDonald (00:23:18): Walmart, where do they need additional pharmaceutical support, or Feeding America, where were the communities that were going to be most vulnerable and where they need to send food assistance? So, I think there is a valuable model there, but if our mission is to empower Americans and citizens and government leaders with the facts, we know that they don't have those capabilities. They don't have the technical people on staff who would even understand what to do with an API, let alone then how to do the querying and pull out the information.
Poppy MacDonald (00:23:49): And so, we really felt like if our goal was to empower those citizens, making it really easy to use and very accessible and helping them navigate that information, the onus was going to be on us to provide those data visualizations, make it really easy to search for the data that you want, and to write content that helped put it into context and help explain what can you see in this government data without taking a position, but just here are the numbers and here's what they show.
Rob Collie (00:24:20): Yeah. Even once you've cleaned and digested the data from its borderline encrypted original format that the government publishes, understanding what each of the metrics means is non-trivial. If you do anything, for instance, with like the money supply metrics from the Fed, I don't know if you do, I haven't looked, but what's M1 versus M2?
Rob Collie (00:24:39): You have no idea what these different metrics on money supply and they all paint very different stories and you need to understand which ones mean which things. And so, that interpretation I can imagine is a very difficult and sacred task for an organization like yours, because again, trying not to take a position, but you have to deploy nuance to explain what some of these metrics actually mean. That's got to harken back to your former life with editorial roots.
Poppy MacDonald (00:25:10): We only use government data and then we only do government data as reported. So, we don't do any predictions or any forecasting, because we do think that's where judgment comes into play. And when we're getting data from the government and it is confusing, "What do they mean by M1?" or even if it's, "Hey, what should we do? There are new, for example, demographics. There are new race identity groups that have been added." So how would we take information that was being collected 100 years ago and compare it to today and ensure that we're applying consistency and ensuring that we're making clear this is newly reported information? It changed at this point in time.
Poppy MacDonald (00:25:49): There is a judgment call in terms of how do we accurately present that, but also make it usable because people do want to see how have things changed over time. And so, just saying, "Well, we'll stop here from 10 years ago when they added this new race category and pick up again," that's not particularly helpful either. So, as much as possible to try to go just back to working with the government, working with those federal statisticians who have crossed Republican and Democratic administrations and who are there as civil servants trying to accurately provide data and say, "What's intended by this?" So, we make the government a partner and we try to make it just as simple and usable as possible is really our goal.
Poppy MacDonald (00:26:31): I mean, you talk about how difficult it would be for a citizen to get some of this data. I remember when I joined USAFacts, people had CDs stacked on their desks and I hadn't seen CDs used in the workplace in a good, probably a decade. And I'm like, "What are all these CDs?" And they're like, "Oh, that's data from the government." Oh, wow. I mean, we have surfaces. There's no CD realm place to insert and download the data off the CDs. And I'm like, "Do we even have a way to download that?" Well, yeah, we had to buy something and we had to plug it in.
Poppy MacDonald (00:27:03): And so, if as a citizen, we're trying to get data from the IRS about how tax rates have changed based on income pools or how they've impacted different demographics or how legislation in this past has impacted families versus single people, you probably are not going to order a bunch of CDs and then try to download the information and then try to come up with your own analysis. It's a heavy lift.
Rob Collie (00:27:28): Yeah, no doubt.
Thomas LaRock (00:27:29): So early on this conversation, as Poppy was talking, I was like, "I really want to subscribe to her newsletter." So literally, I just did. I just signed up.
Poppy MacDonald (00:27:38): Awesome.
Thomas LaRock (00:27:39): And I got an email from poppy welcoming me, which I think was cool.
Rob Collie (00:27:44): Hey, Poppy, please try to focus on the podcast. Why are you sending a mail to Tom?
Poppy MacDonald (00:27:48): I am amazing at multitasking.
Thomas LaRock (00:27:50): Wonderful. So, everybody listening, you should go and subscribe. It's a weekly newsletter. So, I wanted to dive in a little bit more about how you're cleaning your data. And before we do that, I wanted to mention that your website doesn't have like a careers. Are they hiring? I was just curious.
Rob Collie (00:28:09): We should introduce you to Tom.
Thomas LaRock (00:28:10): That's okay.
Rob Collie (00:28:11): We've been neglectful. So, he goes by SQLRockstar on Twitter. He was president of the Professional Association for SQL Server for a number of years. He's now chief geek, head geek or-
Thomas LaRock (00:28:24): Head geek.
Rob Collie (00:28:24): ... nerdo supremo at SolarWinds.
Thomas LaRock (00:28:27): You had just started talking a little bit about the cleansing of data and the problem you have with the volumes of data. And I thought we might dive a little bit more into that, but then I found your Principles page on your website. And this is brilliant because I try to be a person when I write, I try to get to the point, use as few words as possible. Even though I work in marketing, I'm like, "Just get to the point, tell them what you need to tell them."
Thomas LaRock (00:28:53): So, Rob, listen to this. At Principles, if you, Rob is somebody who works with data and you have a client, in this case, a client being the public, and you need to communicate to them, the trouble you might have with the data sets that you're working with. And this is brilliant and I'm going to steal this at some point. As we built USAFacts, we encountered several challenges and made many decisions. That's at the top of the principles. I'm like, "That's brilliant." Hey, I was trying to do my job and it got hard and I made some choices.
Rob Collie (00:29:27): Yeah, I turned the wheel a few times.
Thomas LaRock (00:29:30): So, in here, they do say that they've made judgements about which data to the show because different sources of data within the government will contradict each other. The hell you say. Talk to us about these contradictions.
Rob Collie (00:29:46): Yeah. Where will we encounter apparent contradictions in government data? Are there examples?
Poppy MacDonald (00:29:50): Veterans, there are two different numbers for how many veterans do we have in the United States and that's depending on if you go to the Department of Veterans Affairs or if you go... And I'm forgetting what the second source is, but there's two very conflicting numbers. So, how many veterans do we have in this country? And so, we're just like, "Okay, we're going to pick one data source and use that as the number." And then I think where you get some conflicting information would be an example of COVID when states decided independently.
Poppy MacDonald (00:30:22): I mean the crazy thing about the United States of America, tons of freedom that also looks like we have 90,000 government entities in the United States of America and we have no standardization about what data they should collect, when they should report it, or how they should report it. So, our goal is to be the definitive source of all government data. Even if Steve Ballmer with all his resources hired 90,000 people and said, "Go forth, get that data. Whether it's sitting in a filing cabinet or you've got a CD-ROM or you've got to put in a drive-"
Rob Collie (00:30:59): Stack of CDs.
Poppy MacDonald (00:30:59): Whatever you need to do, get that data and bring it forth. Unfortunately, that would probably look like a lot of mismatched information. It probably wouldn't help us do data driven democracy by the numbers where you're looking at. That city's having such great success there. How could we replicate that across other places? That school district is punching above their weight. How could we replicate that in other places? A part would be a lot of mismatch government data, making sure that people understand what numbers they should collect, what that looks like.
Poppy MacDonald (00:31:29): And I think in COVID, we faced that where estate's numbers would start looking off and we'd call, "Hey, what's going on?" Oh, we changed a little bit, like what we're calling a confirmed case or we changed a little bit. And so, sometimes we try to be that liaison. Well, that's actually not how majority of states in the US are defining that and here's how you might want to think about doing that. We're always trying to partner with the government to get the best most accurate data for citizens, for government leaders, for businesses, for whomever wants access to it, to make informed decisions. It's not easy and we think we're going to need government's help a lot when we think about creating those standards. It's important to you, members of Congress.
Poppy MacDonald (00:32:12): I testified before the House Modernization Committee. One thing that's important to Congress is, "How much is this going to cost?" And so, they have a very principled way they approach that. We all have to go to the Congressional Budget Office. It is nonpartisan. They need to score. What is this going to cost? How much revenue's going to be provided by the sources? And that all needs to be buttoned up before we decide as lawmakers, "Are we going to vote to support this legislation or not?"
Poppy MacDonald (00:32:37): I asked the question, "Why isn't there some principles about we need to know what's the data that could tell us where we are as a country on this particular legislation or on this particular topic? How are we trying to move that number? What's the goal? Are we trying to take it down? Are we trying to take it up? What is this legislation trying to accomplish and how are we going to track by the numbers if this was successful or not?" Not only do I think it would provide accountability, it would also provide clarity to states or to local government leaders who are trying to implement this policy to understand what was intended by this. What was Congress trying to accomplish when they passed this legislation?
Poppy MacDonald (00:33:16): And then I think too, for future of the House or the Senate changes control and the Republicans are in power or if there's a different party in control, is that policy working by the numbers or not? Does change need to be made? Not just, "Hey, we're the new party in town. Let's get rid of what the party before did and let's do our own thing." I think there's just a lot of opportunity for data driven decision making that would benefit all Americans.
Rob Collie (00:33:41): As you were telling that story, following that arc, it occurred to me it's exactly the thing that businesses have been going through over the past couple of decades. This transition from all record keeping originally was ink in paper, over time, bit by bit, that was replaced by digital line of business systems. First of all, just operating the business became lower friction when you went from pen and paper to digital, but by making the transition to digital systems, it enabled the possibility of data driven decision making for the first time, because now, all of the data was available in some aggregatable format, which pen and paper doesn't cooperate. To think about it as the government itself is earlier in that same transition, maybe significantly earlier.
Rob Collie (00:34:32): All these things we're talking about, the silos of information, these are things that are table stakes at a discussion level. They're table stakes in a business environment. Not that they've been conquered, the different silos of information and being able to integrate across them for an end-to-end view of things. At the same time, the conflicting sources, you hear one version of the truth as a business principle all the time or the more informal version of it is my spreadsheet can beat up your spreadsheet in a meeting where we both have different numbers. If we can't agree on what the underlying facts are, we're going to be paralyzed from the start.
Rob Collie (00:35:10): We started to talk about COVID and that is like the big looming shadow in this whole conversation. And I want to get to that, but a couple of quick things first, you mentioned the transition from a P&L type of environment to a nonprofit environment. I'm sure you still have metrics and things that you're tracking that are the replacements for profitability and goes hand in hand with your target audience. And how do you measure success? Who are your target audiences and what are the metrics that you look at and how do you try to advance those?
Poppy MacDonald (00:35:43): We believe everyone could benefit by being empowered by the facts. So, that's 329 million Americans, maybe not infants. Maybe they're not quite ready to embrace the data. We get that. But eventually-
Rob Collie (00:35:54): Not yet.
Poppy MacDonald (00:35:55): ... they will be. But how do we think about, "Okay, yes, we want everyone to access the facts. How do we prioritize audiences?" We want to reach voters, people who have already shown a proclivity to want to cast their own viewpoint about how this country should head in the right or wrong direction. So, voters are certainly a group that we look at targeting and then government. And so, we spend time on Capitol Hill meeting with lawmakers, because we think it's really important that they have access to this data as well. So, those are two priority groups for us.
Poppy MacDonald (00:36:26): Eventually, we'd love to help make this a curriculum in schools. We've seen teachers on Google Classroom using USAFacts as a resource by kids who are in high school. They're not allowed to cite Wikipedia as a source, but they can cite USAFacts. We are just government data and so we are a source. We would love to be more involved in schools. We haven't quite had the time to focus there. Media, we think, is another opportunity, being that resource for journalists. We have some media partnerships where we do help media companies and their reporters ensure that they have access to the data they need as they're doing stories, continuing to grow that and be more accessible.
Poppy MacDonald (00:37:05): We don't have a P&L. We do have a budget and Steve is incredibly generous. He also is a businessperson. So, hey, if I'm investing this much, what's my ROI on that? And it's not making money. He doesn't want to do that. He's made all the money he wants to make. For him, what is my ROI on this investment means more Americans will have a trusted resource for government data. And so, how do we measure that? We measure it by what's the traffic coming to our site. What's the size of our audience? Are people sharing our information? Are they liking it on social media? Are they subscribing to our newsletter? And we just got one more during this very podcast, which is amazing. Well, okay. So, what do those numbers look like?
Poppy MacDonald (00:37:48): When I joined Steve at the end of 2018, the best I could measure when he said, "Ah, nobody's using this thing and I've spent tons of millions of dollars," the best I could measure was our audience was 440,000 in 2018. In 2019, we were at 1,000,006. In 2020, we were at 12 and a half million. And last year, we were at 20 million. So, we continue to reach more Americans and measure who we're reaching. I will say, my team always reminds me yes, in media, the size of your audience was everything. The traffic to your site was everything. It's not everything when it comes to, "Why does USAFacts really exist?" Because we want data to drive a democracy that is benefiting all Americans, right?
Poppy MacDonald (00:38:32): And we want people to feel like they have a trusted resource that they're empowered with the facts and they can use that information to create positive change. How we measure that is harder and it's definitely more qualitative in terms of the feedback that we hear. An example of that is we went on Capitol Hill and met with over 300 lawmakers. We met with Speaker Pelosi and Leader McCarthy and we met on the Senate side with a number of senators. But the most I'd say powerful conversation was when we had a bipartisan group of 15 senators around the table. That doesn't sound huge, but there's 100 senators and 15 of them carved out an hour of their time to come and sit down.
Poppy MacDonald (00:39:14): And they were looking at the data and saying, "Wow, wow, we got an issue here. What are we going to do about it?" And we had a Senator say, "I joined the US Senate because I wanted to have conversations across the aisle about how do we make progress for this country? And while we may never agree on red is the right solution, this was the first time I sat in a room with people across the aisle and we could all say, we trust this data. We can all agree the fact is the fact and we started having a productive conversation about how to move this country forward." So, things like that tell us, "Okay, USAFacts is a resource. It is becoming the starter for productive debates about how to move our country forward."
Rob Collie (00:39:56): Yeah, that's amazing. I want to channel the experience that you had on that day. It's just almost like an antidote to my own growing cynicism. An experience like that, I can't even square that conversation happening with my increasingly cynical worldview of just how little this thing actually happens, right? I need examples and stories like that in my life to just sustain me and I'm being completely serious. That's a really, really good thing for me to hear and I bet that had to have felt good. I'll try by proxy to absorb some of that.
Thomas LaRock (00:40:30): I love your annual State of the Union in Numbers. So, that's something you've done now. It says the third year.
Poppy MacDonald (00:40:37): Yeah.
Thomas LaRock (00:40:38): This is great.
Poppy MacDonald (00:40:39): We were talking with Senator Schumer who's the Democratic leader in the Senate and Senator Romney who's a Republican who ran for President. They were like, "This is so cool. This is such an amazing resource. How do we get more of our constituents to take advantage of it?" And as we were chatting with them, one of the things we talked about is this State of the Union, this address that the President makes about how is our country doing. And what we realized in talking to the senators but then also going back and looking at previous speeches is that no matter if it's a Republican or a Democrat or what's going on in the world, the State of the Union is described as strong, stronger, never been stronger. And we thought it was a little bit more complicated than that.
Poppy MacDonald (00:41:23): Whether there are really thriving parts of our country, which there usually are, everything's going perfectly. Not everything's strong, stronger, never been stronger. What the people get is the President who generally will paint a very rosy picture and then there's the rebuttal from the other party, which is everything's a disaster. And we didn't think that was particularly helpful.
Poppy MacDonald (00:41:43): So, we're like, "Let's go back and analyze previous speeches. What are the topics the President touches upon? And then let's present to citizens so they can judge for themselves by the numbers, how are we doing across these major issues? What's going on with education, with healthcare, with energy, with the environment, with our population? How is that changing? And let's provide that data in a visually accessible, easy to navigate way. Let's do that together."
Poppy MacDonald (00:42:08): And we had Senator Romney's policy team and Senator Schumer's policy team look it over to say, "Does anything feel partisan or biased in the way we're presenting this? We want this to be a tool that's used by people, no matter what their party is, and really work with them just to provide a data driven assessment of our country."
Thomas LaRock (00:42:25): This is awesome. They ingest, they clean it, they analyze, they study. Are you at their website? I'm just browsing what they offer up. It's just great. I don't want to be dismissive of it, but it's like a whole bunch of little USA Today infographics. It's digestible, right?
Poppy MacDonald (00:42:41): I was going to say, Tom, we are hiring for a Chief Marketing Officer. I feel like publicist here, in the running right now at a minimum.
Thomas LaRock (00:42:50): Have you ever done that experiment where they'd say, "So, a billion dollars is a thousand million. So, imagine spending a million dollars every day for three years"? At some point, you bought everything. There's nothing left.
Rob Collie (00:43:04): That actually is relevant to the conversation, I think, Poppy, which is there's a joke, which is you know what the difference between a billion dollars and a million dollars is? The difference is a billion dollars. And so, giving people even a sense of scope, right? A trillion is just an unbelievable number. I've seen explainers like it's a stack of $100 bills going all the way to the moon. It's ridiculous how much a trillion is. I mean, this is the challenge of a mission like yours.
Rob Collie (00:43:38): I mean, there's many challenges, but I think one of the biggest ones is again, where to draw the boundary because there is no boundary. It's everything in the end and so where to draw those lines and how to defend them and justify them to yourselves and to others and to prevent growing over those lines. And are there ever points where you adjust those lines? Have you ever had an adjustment in the perimeter of what the mission includes versus doesn't include?
Poppy MacDonald (00:44:06): We are only government data. The challenge with government data is it's not always super up to date. So, if you're trying to make real time decisions, COVID, it didn't exist until we went out and got it and provided it to the government going county by county to collect it. But if you're trying to make real time decisions, for example, we do a 10K for the US government. We just published our 2022 10K. We were using the latest available data that was 2019. Why? We could have used federal government data from 2021 to do our 2022 10K. We had that holistic wrap, but we want to be comprehensive of local state and federal.
Poppy MacDonald (00:44:47): And so, by the time the OMB, the Office of Management and Budget and the Congressional Budget Office go back and reconcile, "Okay, we collected this much in revenue. We then distributed some of those dollars back to states. How did those dollars get spent at the state and county and local level?" and then reconcile that all back up, it takes three years because there isn't a standardized method of reporting that information. And so, I guess I will say that's where sometimes we scratch our heads a little bit and say, "At some point, do we need to use more readily accessible private data that is just the data as reported so that we can have more real time decision making tools? And what would that look like and how could we be transparent and honest about it?"
Poppy MacDonald (00:45:36): Where maybe we would say, "If you search for data on USAFacts, you're just going to get government data." However, we've built this dashboard, which also pulls in credit card charges as reported or which also pulls in road conditions as reported by this source. And this will help you now formulate a real time decision with the latest available government data. We haven't decided to do that yet, but we have had conversations about it, because we want to be useful and we want to help citizens and lawmakers make the best decisions for this country. And sometimes we are limited by the government data that's available and how real time or current it is.
Rob Collie (00:46:21): There's a personal example. It's not in scope for you. The City of Indianapolis, I believe if not the runaway favorite, it's at least a top three contender for worst potholes in the country. The number of car tires and even wheels, wheels, the metal wheels on our cars that have had to be replaced over the years just because of Indianapolis potholes is unreal. We lived in Cleveland for a while. Cleveland roads are for better, and it has something to do with the way that funding is allocated in the state.
Rob Collie (00:46:55): It's allocated in a way that's more based on linear miles of roads. And so, the roads out in the country are immaculately maintained, but the multi-lane heavy use roads in the City of Indianapolis are a disaster. So, if you could do me a favor, honestly, I don't understand how people of lesser means maintain an automobile in this city. It's actually a tremendous financial strain on our family, having to have rental cars and not to mention the expense of the... Anyway, someday-
Poppy MacDonald (00:47:26): We'll work on it. Yeah, Steve talks about why we roll up local state federal. When you're driving on your commute to work, do you know was that road locally maintained road, maintained by your state or a federal highway or something like that? And where are you experiencing those potholes? You probably don't care. It all rolls up and to understand, "Are my road safer? Are my bridges safer?" You don't really care who's in charge of funding it, but that's interesting that you just experience those discrepancies.
Rob Collie (00:47:54): Yeah. The municipal boundaries matter here. So, we live actually north of the city. And so, it's like, "Oh, I'm going down into Indianapolis tonight. I need the jeep." It's that level of planning.
Poppy MacDonald (00:48:05): It's like off-roading.
Rob Collie (00:48:07): Yeah, I need the lunar lander to go across this landscape. Okay, COVID. When you mentioned your audience size, I don't remember the exact numbers, but there did seem to be a tremendous inflection point between 2019 and 2020. Forrest Gump says, "I'm not a smart man, but I know what correlation is." And this is ironic, right? It sounds like maybe COVID was really good for USAFacts.
Poppy MacDonald (00:48:32): COVID was good for our business, definitely.
Rob Collie (00:48:35): Here you are. You've got a mission. You've been in the role for a year or two at that point. It's hard enough doing what you were doing and then the greatest factual crisis of our times hits. Can you just walk us through what that was like on a human visceral level and your response to it? How did that all unfold for you?
Poppy MacDonald (00:48:54): Yes. So, first of all, how it unfolded is I had a few people on our team. I mean, we already thought 2020 would be a growth year for USAFacts. So, we'd had million and a half in 2019 and we thought we'd have about four and a half million in 2020, because we're like, "There's a presidential election. Never is there going to be a moment in history when people are so hungry for facts." Little did we know, oh wait, there's going to be way bigger moment. And that's a pandemic where it's going to be my health, my safety, that of my children, that of my employees. So, we hadn't anticipated that pandemic. And what happened was our few folks on the team, we were a team of 13.
Poppy MacDonald (00:49:28): A few folks who did our data analysis and visualization came to me and said, "Reporters, citizens, people are tweeting saying they can't get information about what's happening at a county level." In that time, it felt really close to home. It was happening in Washington state and there was outbreak in New York. And although we were 13 people, we were like, "Eh, few counties, Washington, New York, we got this. We can make something." And I do remember saying, "But don't spend too much time on it, because remember, we still have this whole roadmap of issues leading up to the election that we need to be able to provide data on and we want to be that resource for Americans. So, don't get too distracted."
Poppy MacDonald (00:50:08): It was all hands on deck basically that every night, we're going county by county. Sometimes it was to a Sheriff's Facebook page. Sometimes it was a place we had to call. Sometimes it was machine readable and pulling that into a database and making it accessible on our site. Obviously, it took off and that's when we really relied on a few engineers we had hired and continuing to hire engineers to say, "How do we automate this? Because we're going to need to scale." And while we had always thought we would be the place that takes government's data and makes it accessible to the public, we had never imagined a world where we were the provider of data to the government.
Poppy MacDonald (00:50:46): So, we ended up being the official source for COVID data for the Centers for Disease Control and we were on call to the White House every night. So, on call to Dr. Deborah Birx and to Vice President Pence's Chief of Staff. And they would call sometimes at 3:00 in the morning, at 4:00 in the morning to say, "What's happening in these numbers? What are you seeing here?" So, it was very rewarding to be able to be that source. It was from a mission standpoint. We had people say, "Yeah, but how do you get Americans to care about the facts or to want to take time out of their incredibly busy lives to go and access facts? That's like please eat your vegetables. They're so good for you."
Poppy MacDonald (00:51:28): And this was a moment to say, facts matter. This is your health. This is your safety. This is your wellbeing. Come and access this information and here's your trusted source. And then I think we advocate to government. We don't advocate for anything except government data should be transparent and there should be standards for how it's collected when it's reported. Hey, government, remember how we've been saying this? Now, you're facing a pandemic and you're relying on USAFacts' 13 people to provide this data to you. How about let's get ahead of the issue and start thinking about what does that standardization look like? What does that reporting look like?
Poppy MacDonald (00:52:08): Where when we face a challenge again, in the future, you're not relying on a third party, but you've got those systems set up such that you're getting real time data and you can make the best possible decisions. And so, I'm hoping we'll see continued reforms. We provided that information to the Trump administration. When the Biden administration transitioned, we did transition calls with their team. And I think that there's definitely been an awakening about how important it is that there be better pipelines set up.
Poppy MacDonald (00:52:36): So, I'm hoping that that will create positive change, but certainly had a big impact for USAFacts in terms of our audience growth. So, we ended that year with about 12.5 million as our audience and 1.5 million the year before, so big explosive growth. And then it was just really rewarding from a mission perspective to be able to serve the country in that way and to be that resource for citizens.
Rob Collie (00:52:58): I had no idea that USAFacts had become the official source for the CDC. I did not know that. It's not like I was building towards that question. What a cool surprise for me anyway. By the way, the irony of being the source for the government, instead of the source from the government, the source for the government, that irony had already struck me a couple of times earlier in the conversation, in some ways, making it digestible back to them. When you're meeting with the senators, for instance, you were already towing that line or getting into that workflow, but to be official in a situation like that is a different thing altogether.
Poppy MacDonald (00:53:35): Yeah, it's wild to be watching CNN or something and seeing a White House briefing being televised live and to see our logo on the data that was being shared out of the White House. It was like, "Whoa, okay."
Rob Collie (00:53:48): So, as it really kicked into gear, it was a nationwide issue and it was everywhere and the fog of war was also everywhere. Was there one homogeneous type of source that you were pulling from? Were you going county level? Were you going to the state governments? Was it a one size fits all strategy or was it regionally very different how you were rolling up?
Poppy MacDonald (00:54:08): Right, it started with county by county scaling to 3,900 counties. And then there started to be some states that were rolling that up in a way that we could get the county level detail. And then sometimes those states would go from, "Did we say we were reporting daily? Now we're going to report once a week." And now scrambling again, to go back to the counties to try to ensure we had the daily update. Some states are changing their methodology all of a sudden and needing to figure out why did that happen. So, I would just say we were constantly kept on our toes in terms of day by day. Did it collect data? Does this look accurate? Did something go wrong here?
Poppy MacDonald (00:54:44): And it was exhausting. It was rewarding. It was validating. It was something we continue to support and who knows what will happen with COVID. We're definitely though pivoting now to say, we hope for the health of our country that COVID isn't the thing that everybody needs data around. We hope COVID will go away. And so, now we're again pivoting as the midterm elections coming up. What are the other issues that are going to be important to Americans right now?
Rob Collie (00:55:12): Yeah, but that nervous system and experience that you built around the COVID, let's hope it never comes in handy, but it might. When you have to pull from that many different data sources and they're almost by definition flowing through local political channels, local government channels, politics and government, a little bit of the same thing sometimes and different regions of the country had very different attitudes toward this and very different incentives, hidden incentives anyway, for how to report the data.
Rob Collie (00:55:42): Plenty of examples of where certain states you couldn't trust the figures that they were reporting. For an organization that has a very stated non-bias, how do you navigate a situation where potentially political bias that is not yours could be in either direction out in the weeds is influencing the numbers that you're collecting? How do you navigate that framework? Was that even something that you had to deal with?
Poppy MacDonald (00:56:07): Certainly, we were thinking about it in following the numbers, right? If a state for OPEX purposes decided we're not going to report daily, we're going to go to once a week, we're going to do the rolled up number, then we'd say, "Where is the source where we can get the daily counts and continue to report it in the way we've been reporting that we think is necessary to have that real time data in that middle of a pandemic?" I think where some of the spin, some of that happened was, I mean, we weren't using the information as reported in the governor's press conference or the information as stated in the press release on the mayor's website. We were just going right to the raw data source.
Rob Collie (00:56:49): The original sources, yeah.
Poppy MacDonald (00:56:50): Was somebody cooking those books? I hope not. Is it 100% perfect? No, but we think the spin happens outside of that and we just tried to keep it to the data as reported.
Rob Collie (00:57:02): If you get down to the county level, the chances that you're off by a lot at the aggregate level go down. Did you make it through the entire COVID process with just 13 people?
Poppy MacDonald (00:57:11): Yeah, especially on engineering and on our product team. When I was hired, I was a sixth hire for USAFacts. And today, we're at 40 people and we have 12 people joining us this summer. I will say about half of those are interns, but we do end up offering a lot of our interns full-time jobs after they graduate. And six of those are full-time recent college graduate hires. So, we continue to think about, "What is that next pipeline of talent and energy that is going to keep driving and pushing USAFacts forward?" I would say we're still a small but mighty team, right? And sometimes Steve's like, "Poppy, come on. Forty's not that small anymore."
Poppy MacDonald (00:57:54): And yes, it's not. It's like a good sized team, but in the grand scheme of we want 329 million Americans to have access to all government data, which is 90,000 local government entities, divide that among 40 people, we're punching above our weight. It's an ambition with a huge mission and the opportunity to have a lot of impact.
Rob Collie (00:58:15): Well, as you mentioned earlier, 90,000 government entities. We often joke about Microsoft. They'll have a technical salesperson and you'd be like, "Okay, well, how many accounts do they manage? Three, four, five?" No, 100. Some of them have 100. Okay. So, 100, you get 2,000 hours of work. They get 20 hours. You get two and a half days of your work year per account if you spread it evenly. It's an impossible job. Not every Microsoft sales rep has a triple digit responsibility for accounts, but it's amazing how many of them do.
Poppy MacDonald (00:58:49): The scope of Microsoft because I was having dinner with somebody from Microsoft last night and they were like, "Yeah. When I moved to the London office, I mean, that's tiny, everybody knows everybody." And I said, "What's tiny in the Microsoft scope?" And she was like, "Oh, good question, 5,000." And I was like, "Oh, okay. Not tiny. Apparently, in my world, it's 40 people." Anyway, it's just whole different.
Rob Collie (00:59:09): Yeah. You're not CTO.
Poppy MacDonald (00:59:11): I was though. I was acting CTO for about nine months when we searched for a perfect CTO and it gets everyone a big chuckle. I will say, what I'm proudest of is I retained the engineering team. I was proud of that. They reported directly to me. I think we had engaging one-on-ones. I did the engineer's reviews. I said," This must be a terrible review experience for you." And they were like, "You know what? My whole career, I haven't gotten feedback about how I could be stronger as a leader, as a manager, as a contributor toward mission." So, they got different kind of feedback. And so, I learned so much. I mean, my gosh. Please, I know you're now about to test me with some technical questions, but I am not a CTO. I'm not an engineer.
Poppy MacDonald (00:59:56): And we just hired an amazing woman, Tanuja Korlepra, to come in and run our engineering team. And she comes from Microsoft and Amazon before that and she has experience working with big data. And I'm super thankful, because right now, work is building that ingestion pipeline that can allow us to scale to be the definitive source of bringing in the latest, real-time government data, making sure it's continuously updated.
Poppy MacDonald (01:00:22): So, that Americans know if I need government data, I can just go to one place and I can get it and we're not that yet. We have 70 major federal sources coming through us. And so, you can get state data, you can get federal data. There's some local data when it comes to COVID, but we've got so much further to go. I bet we have 10% if even 10% of the data that exists out there for government.
Rob Collie (01:00:44): Well, at some point, after she's done getting acclimated, we would love to extend an invitation-
Poppy MacDonald (01:00:50): She would love that.
Rob Collie (01:00:50): ... for her to be on the show.
Thomas LaRock (01:00:51): I want to dive into the review part that you just mentioned though, because what's interesting is how you said those engineers said to you that you were giving them feedback, but not technical feedback like, "Go learn more Python," or something but you were helping them be a better data professional. All right. And I think one aspect of that is being able to use data to tell the story of the point you're trying to make. There is an amazing lack of that ability. So, you can be the best data engineer out there, but if you can use data to make your point, it's so much better. If you can tell the story or see the story that the data is telling you, that's when we start talking about something being truly data driven, as opposed to what we have now.
Thomas LaRock (01:01:36): So, I wanted you to know that even though I wasn't a part of that process at USAFacts, how wonderful I think it is and how amazing it is that those 12 people, 13 people had that opportunity to learn from you about how to become a better data professional. And it makes me think besides the fact that the review process in this country for most corporations is horribly broken and wrong, maybe there's hope for it. Maybe there's a way to do better reviews, especially for somebody who's technical who works with data but maybe don't have the skills necessary to advance in their careers. I'm not sure there's a question in there.
Rob Collie (01:02:13): To amplify what you're saying there, Poppy, our show is subtitled data with the human element. The people we hire at our company are not techies first. I mean that in a historical progression sense. They were not techies. Most of them had nothing to do with technology. No, there are a few exceptions, but most of them were in business, collaborative business role of some sort before high tech came into their lives. And that's a very different profile of person that we hire relative to organizations who have traditionally been in our space. We do a lot of work with Power BI. That's the number one technology we work with at our company.
Rob Collie (01:02:49): And yet if someone approaches me and identifies themselves with the title Power BI developer, I'm already a little suspicious as to whether or not they'll fit in with us because it's identifying in a very technical way. And again, I have a computer science degree. I went to Microsoft straight out of college. I spent 13, 14 years there, learned a lot of lessons the hard way about the role of tech. When you're doing it right, the role of tech isn't for tech's sake. But as a computer science graduate, you can imagine that you have that wrong. I certainly did for the first few years in particular. Some people who go into tech do so almost explicitly or at least maybe subconsciously for themselves, but to escape the human.
Rob Collie (01:03:31): They want to go someplace where everything fits in a little place. The computer doesn't lie. The computer isn't unpredictable. It's going to do exactly what you tell it to do and there's a comfort in that. But when you get drawn into that and out of the human plane, you become a lot less effective. You've got to go back into the human plane to actually be effective. And so, I also have to ask, did you ever have the sneaky little desire to sneak an Easter egg into these people's reviews and be like, "And by the way, I think the way you declare your data types is wrong. I think you should be using spaces instead of tabs in your code"? I wouldn't have been able to resist that joke.
Poppy MacDonald (01:04:11): I didn't get that clever, I'm afraid. I was overwhelmed just trying to do all of their reviews and do justice to what they contribute and the fact that they just bear with me as they didn't have a chief technology officer and we were looking for that perfect person to join us.
Rob Collie (01:04:26): Being able to plug that gap for a while. I met your team. I'm sure some of them have changed since I met them. They were impressive people. Did you retain them?
Poppy MacDonald (01:04:34): When I started with them, it was funny because the engineer said, "Oh, you sound like a product person. You don't know how frustrated you make us. You just sound like a product person. You don't understand like what we experience as engineers." And then I don't know, fast forward three, four months and then the product team just started saying, "You sound like an engineer. You don't know how frustrating it is." So, it really was a great experience to see it from both perspectives, not to mention the marketing team's perspective. I'm acting chief marketing officer right now. So, I mean, I'm getting all the great opportunities to dive in and understand where people come from and how hard their job is.
Poppy MacDonald (01:05:09): And the awesome thing is everyone at USAFacts has a mission, which is we're going to empower Americans with the facts. Democracy can be stronger if it's data driven. And how do we empower citizens in our government? And so, everybody approaches it that way. And so, when someone's frustrating someone else, it's like remember we've all have the same North Star and they're coming at it from a place of positive intent. We're all trying to accomplish the same thing and we just might have a different ideas about how to do it.
Poppy MacDonald (01:05:36): But you've got an engineer who won't be afraid to call out a piece of content and it's in reviews, I think there's bias there. I think you're looking at it from your own bias and I'm going to call you out on that. So, engineers have the ability to weigh in on content and marketing team members have the ability to weigh in on something engineering's building. And is that actually accessible to the public? It's a nice mix of people where everyone's opinion counts and we're all striving for the same goal.
Thomas LaRock (01:06:01): So, the chief marketing officer position.
Poppy MacDonald (01:06:04): Are you interested?
Thomas LaRock (01:06:08): As somebody who's never actually been the chief marketing officer, what are you looking for in the future chief marketing officer? What would that look like for USAFacts?
Poppy MacDonald (01:06:21): Somebody who is data oriented, because we work with numbers. Steve talks about build what you sell, sell what you build. We've had marketing candidates who come in and they're like, "Oh, yeah, nobody likes data. It's all about emotion." I mean, you can't really talk about data. You're going to have to present them. It's like, "Okay, this is not a fit." You got to really believe in our product. You've got to love working with data and numbers, but also, how do we make this digestible for human beings? I remember our former chief marketing officer when they came in to present, they said, "When I go to your website, I feel stupid."
Poppy MacDonald (01:06:53): And that's not what you should be. You're not accessible to the public if you're talking about two standard deviations or things that I could go look up, because I'm super confused because I'm not a data person. I just care about my country and I'm looking for a source I can trust. So, I think it's also really incumbent on that chief marketing officer to think, "How do we take what we do and make it accessible and maybe even make it a little fun?"
Poppy MacDonald (01:07:20): So, we do things like the Thanksgiving Fact Sheet, which is you're about to go to your Thanksgiving dinner table and you know your aunt's going to say something that's just completely not based on any fact and you're going to be pulling your hair out. Be calm. Here is your super easy to use Flipboard of the basic data that you can bring to that conversation and have a thoughtful discussion. But how do we make it fun? Seven days of pie around the holidays and it's pie charts, right?
Poppy MacDonald (01:07:47): How do we take what we're doing and make it so that anyone feels like they can approach the data and be armed with the facts and make it accessible and find new people who say, "Who knew a resource like that exists. I could really use that"? And so that's all under the chief marketing officer. They have to be creative and data driven and positive and be willing to roll up their sleeves, because we're a tiny team.
Thomas LaRock (01:08:11): I was going down the list here, love data, make things digestible, understandable. I'm checking all the boxes here.
Poppy MacDonald (01:08:17): Amazing. I found my person.
Thomas LaRock (01:08:19): Yeah, until you said positive. And then I'm like, "Yeah, yeah."
Rob Collie (01:08:24): Curmudgeonly.
Thomas LaRock (01:08:24): I'm so close. Damn it.
Rob Collie (01:08:28): Yeah, sorry. Well, Poppy, I'm acting CMO for my company. So, I'm going to jump the line.
Thomas LaRock (01:08:33): See, that's what I'm saying.
Rob Collie (01:08:34): Sorry, Tom, you got competition. Honestly, I think the chances that someone listening to this might be a good fit for you are pretty reasonably significant. Hopefully, someone out there is going to go, "Yeah, wow." Here's what we need to do, Poppy. We need to measure in the week period following the release of this podcast, change in job application pace that you receive. We need to measure the lift and that's going to be correlation driven because we're not going to have UTM codes.
Rob Collie (01:09:00): We're not going to be able to actually track with pixels or anything like that like actual conversions. We're just going to have to trust the correlation, but we'll provide you our data on the listenership so you can weight it by day even. That'll make it a little bit cleaner of a correlation. Then you have to account for lag. People need to listen and then think for a couple of days before they work up the courage to apply. It's going to be a great problem.
Thomas LaRock (01:09:22): Besides being an employee, do you have any other avenues of outreach such as do you have a group of people you can go to talk to, to get ideas and feedback about your association? If it doesn't exist, I think it should. And if it does, how do I become involved?
Poppy MacDonald (01:09:41): Well, you just did, Tom, because we rely on our newsletter audience as our primary group. So, we will send them surveys. We'll ask them to participate in small focus groups. And so, we think those are our most loyal audience.
Thomas LaRock (01:09:56): Wonderful.
Poppy MacDonald (01:09:56): There are about 160,000 newsletter subscribers. So, that doesn't mean we'll bug you every single day, but you just became one of our loyal folks who are engaging with us on at least a weekly basis, because you decided to subscribe to the newsletter. So, you're definitely part of that loyal group. So, thank you.
Rob Collie (01:10:12): Yeah. So, there you go. You're part of the advisory program.
Thomas LaRock (01:10:14): I look forward to helping lead the USAFacts to new direction.
Poppy MacDonald (01:10:21): Thank you. Thank you.
Rob Collie (01:10:22): Poppy, you need one of those LinkedIn badges. When someone subscribes to your newsletter and they join your advisory program, they can put that badge on their LinkedIn. I'm a USAFacts advisory program member.
Poppy MacDonald (01:10:31): That's a good idea. Okay.
Thomas LaRock (01:10:31): I'm a USA factoid.
Rob Collie (01:10:36): What's next for USAFacts? What's the roadmap going forward?
Poppy MacDonald (01:10:40): Three big areas we're focused on, more data, more accessible, more consumed. So, more data, we do want to continue to scale to be that definitive source for government data. So, we are just like, "What is the data that we don't have based on what are the issues that are top of mind for Americans right now and it would be helpful for them to navigate?" So, getting more of the school district data brought in, crime data. I mean, we're looking at, "How do we continue to ingest relevant government data and make it accessible?" So more accessible, I mean we are thinking about from a site perspective, how do we continue to improve navigation?
Poppy MacDonald (01:11:17): We are inspired by how easy it is to find information on Wikipedia. So, how do we make it really easy to navigate between topics and to find information that's relevant? How do we make search work lightning fast so that you type in food stamps and SNAP program pops up for you or you type in healthcare and it prompts you with, well, what about healthcare are you looking for? So how do we make search work better? And then how do we continue to create really cool data visualizations that are useful tools for decision making?
Poppy MacDonald (01:11:46): We hired Amanda Cox, who is the data editor at the New York times for 18 years. She's called the Michael Phelps of data journalism if you go on her Wikipedia page and she's just built a small team who's all starting in the next couple of weeks. And we're really excited for the kinds of interactive data visualizations that she's going to offer. And then on more consumed, 329 million Americans, we've got 20 million. And so, we're just going to keep going out and finding Americans on the platforms that they're at and with relevant data and information based on what they care about and what's going on in their life and ensuring they know USAFacts exist as a resource. So, those are the three big areas that we're pursuing.
Rob Collie (01:12:28): I would love to be referred to as the Michael Phelps of anything.
Poppy MacDonald (01:12:32): Me, too.
Rob Collie (01:12:33): Speaking of aristocracy, I don't know how he grew up, but this champion swimmer recorded the longest ever successful golf put that was televised. There wasn't enough excellence in his life. He had to hit a 130-foot put on TV.
Poppy MacDonald (01:12:51): That makes me so mad. I was like, "Everyone gets one amazing skill. Why do people get more than one?" Yes, it's unfair.
Rob Collie (01:12:58): It really is. Poppy, thank you so much for your time. I know that it's incredibly valuable. You're also just such a nice person.
Poppy MacDonald (01:13:06): Thank you.
Speaker 3 (01:13:07): Thanks for listening to the Raw Data by P3 Adaptive Podcast. Let the experts at P3 Adaptive help your business. Just go to p3adaptive.com. Have a data day.
Sign up to receive email updates
Enter your name and email address below and I'll send you periodic updates about the podcast.