UVA Darden Students’ Powerful Data Visualization Wins Seat at Table With Steve Ballmer

04 April 2019

By Dave Hendrick

Thanks to a single compelling data visualization, University of Virginia Darden School of Business Class of 2019 students Mike Christison, Jette Welch, Aamir Imam and Michael Osborne will soon have the opportunity to dine with one of the world’s most influential business leaders.

The four Darden students were the winners of the USAFacts Data Visualization Challenge, a novel competition held at the Darden School in late March. Sponsored by USAFacts, a nonpartisan organization founded by Los Angeles Clippers owner and former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer that aims to make government data more available, accessible and understandable to the media, policymakers and the public at large, the competition involved 27 First Year teams from Professor Robert Carraway’s “Data Analysis and Optimization” course and one Second Year team. Each team submitted a single visualization showing the effectiveness of government spending.

The winning entry, based on data mined from USAFacts, visualized educational performance gaps among different demographic groups.

The winning entry considered the impact of education spending.

The winning team received signed Clippers’ gear and the opportunity to join Ballmer for breakfast when he releases USAFacts’ annual report on government revenue, spending and outcomes at The Economic Club in Washington, D.C., on April 30.

“The judges chose the winning visualization because it shows parts of the population that are not benefitting equally by investment in education,” said Poppy MacDonald, president of USAFacts. “It helps policymakers decide at which populations you might try to target resources. This visualization gives you a sense of where you might look first.”

Other finalists in the competition considered the relationship between Head Start funding and high school graduation rates, the “weak” relationship between fiscal spending and the claimed political priorities of the party controlling the U.S. Congress, and the relationship between funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and the reduction in hunger in U.S. households.

MacDonald, who spoke to students at a Darden Dialogues event and lectured in two classes with her colleague and data visualization journalist Tanveer Ali, said the organization grew out of Ballmer’s frustration with his inability to easily find reliable government data when considering how his charitable endeavors could be made most effective.

“This was about him as a business leader saying, ‘I relied on data to run Microsoft, but for voters it is impossible to access government data in a way that helps you solve problems,’” said MacDonald, who served as president and COO of POLITICO before relocating to the Seattle area to take the USAFacts position.

Among other projects, USAFacts produces a 10-K and annual report on the United States, considering all revenue collected and dollars spent, and tracking the spending against social outcomes.

In addition to putting more data in the hands of citizenry, MacDonald said the organization hopes to prod the government into releasing data more frequently and in an accessible format. Ballmer has even jokingly told her she should be out of a job in 10 years, she said, in the hope that the government upgrades its own data reporting capabilities.

Mike Christison and Mike Osborne (Class of 2019), center, were two members of the winning data visualization team. They are pictured with, from left, Darden Senior Director of Career Services Jenny Zenner, USA Facts President Poppy Macdonald and data visualization journalist Tanveer Ali.
About the University of Virginia Darden School of Business

The University of Virginia Darden School of Business delivers the world’s best business education experience to prepare entrepreneurial, global and responsible leaders through its MBA, Ph.D., MSBA and Executive Education programs. Darden’s top-ranked faculty is renowned for teaching excellence and advances practical business knowledge through research. Darden was established in 1955 at the University of Virginia, a top public university founded by Thomas Jefferson in 1819 in Charlottesville, Virginia.


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