Steve and Connie Ballmer got in on the ground floor of the technological revolution centered on the rise of the personal computer. Having amassed a tech-fueled fortune worth over $20 billion by the time he retired after 34 years at Microsoft, the pair are once again key players at the forefront of a new age, this time as the power of technology is injected into the child welfare system in hopes of improving the lives of children, youth and families.
Friends with Bill Gates at Harvard, Steve Ballmer joined Microsoft in 1980. He met Connie Snyder Ballmer when she joined the fledgling company, and they married in 1990. Steve Ballmer rose steadily at Microsoft, succeeding Gates as CEO from 2000 until his retirement in 2014.
While some predicted Ballmer would use his spending power to buy his way into basketball after he retired from Microsoft – and he proved them right when he bought the Los Angeles Clippers for $2 billion in 2014 – observers of the philanthropy world surmised that the couple would also ply their fortune into children and youth services since they had for years engaged in philanthropy benefiting children and youth in the Seattle area, where they live.
In an email to The Chronicle of Social Change, Connie Ballmer said she became interested in child welfare “as a parent who understands the importance of stability in a child’s life, and as a community member who knows that healthy children and families are the foundation of our future.”
Now ramping up their giving through Ballmer Group Philanthropy, the Ballmers joined Blue Meridian Partners earlier this year by pitching in the enormous sum of $50 million. Blue Meridian, a capital aggregation collaboration focused on children and youth and led by the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation, aims “to discover the most promising evidence-based programs and propel them to a scale that maximizes their impact.”
“Steve and I were honored to have been invited to join Blue Meridian,” Ballmer said. “We like the notion of making big philanthropic investments in order to move our systems faster,” she said, noting that the focus of Blue Meridian mirrors their interest in at-risk youth.
The Ballmers bring to Blue Meridian a decade of experience supporting technological innovation in child welfare through Partners for Our Children (POC), a collaboration between the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services, the University of Washington School of Social Work and private sector funding. The Ballmers underwrote the creation of POC in 2007 with a hefty contribution of $10 million, and have continued to fund the organization’s operating expenses as well as large projects. Connie Ballmer is the chair of the board of directors.
Initially a research center, POC soon evolved to engage in more direct involvement in the field by making use of tools and technology available to child welfare through the use of data science.
In 2010, with initial funding from the Stuart Foundation followed by additional funding from the Ballmers and others, POC created the Child Well-Being Data Portal, a website that displays interactive data visualization tools about Washington state’s child welfare system. The portal shows policymakers, providers, judges and other stakeholders key information, such as which children are overrepresented in the system and where the best outcomes are being achieved.
In developing the data portal, POC discovered the need for a common data model for public systems serving children, youth and families, including child welfare, education and the courts.
“Case management activities are relatively common across these domains,” said Joseph Mienko, research scientist at POC, “so we knew if we could figure out a way to speak the same language about things like intake and referrals and outcomes, then we could integrate these data in a much easier way than we can when everyone is doing their own development in isolation.”
The push for this common data model, which Mienko says the Ballmers in particular were eager for the organization to create, gave rise to the idea of Oliver, POC’s online “data-driven service management solution,” which gives providers tools to manage and coordinate their services. Eventually, Oliver will also be available to the individuals accessing those services, allowing them to see real-time availability of services, and even rate providers.
POC’s Director of Technology Abraham Ray, hired to lead the development of Oliver, came to the organization with over 20 years of experience in data technology. He describes Oliver as an example of “disruptive technology.”
Similar to the personal computer’s impact on professional and personal communication when it replaced the typewriter, Oliver is meant to be a game changer in the social services world.
Among its many goals, it reduces the enormous amount of time service providers typically spend on paperwork, freeing up more time for working directly with children and families.
With sustainability a key requirement of many funders, including the Ballmers, POC charges providers a monthly subscription rate of $10 per user to access Oliver’s suite of online tools.
While streamlining and coordinating services, Oliver gathers quality data about the efficiency of these services, information which is then used, Ray said, to make good on the promise of 2012 legislation. House Bill 2264 reformed the delivery of some child welfare services in Washington State through performance-based contracting, in which payments to contracted service providers are tied to measurable outcomes.
POC contracts with Washington’s Children’s Administration, with over 200 social workers using Oliver to see performance data so they can assign referrals to the best performing providers. Social workers can now see which providers have met their contractual requirements such as timely scheduling of visitations for families.
Acknowledging that privacy is “probably the most complex issue we deal with,” Ray said, POC “tackles HIPAA-compliance and the trust issue head on.” Each provider who uses Oliver has an “individual vault” much like merchants have on Amazon.
According to Ray, Oliver creates “a flywheel of continuous improvement so the entire process from policy to population outcomes is connected end to end.” This flywheel, made possible through technological innovation, is something the Ballmers are committed to supporting.
“In order to evolve our systems to be more effective,” Ballmer said, “technology can be used to capture information on the hard work being done by people in the system and then to analyze that information to determine whether there is room for improvement.”
POC is currently working with other states, as well as Japan and Australia, interested in using Oliver products in their social services systems.
“This is what we call ‘catalytic philanthropy,’” Ray said, crediting the Ballmers along with the Gates and a few other philanthropists for introducing a new philosophy on how to invest in transforming different sectors.
While it remains to be seen how much more financial power the Ballmers will put toward the infusion of technology into social services, they appear committed to the cause.
“We are most heartened,” Ballmer said, “by government officials who are reform minded, who see how data can lead to healthier programs and people, and who are willing to partner with private sector partners. The adoption of technology will happen in this sector, it’s just a matter of how and when.”