SwayWhat.com Founder Hopes to Change Political Discourse With Data
Noah Blumenthal is a self-proclaimed data geek who discovered his passion — “evidence-based decision making” — after attending a meeting of his local Board of Education in Sea Cliff, N.Y. following the Newtown shootings.
Blumenthal, who is CEO of the web-based startup SwayWhat.com, said the auditorium was packed with frightened parents and community members, some of whom were advocating for drastic security measures including arming school principals, installing bullet-proof glass, and adding panic buttons in every classroom.
Struggling to find compelling information to combat what he perceived to be extreme reactions, Blumenthal said he went on a fact-finding mission using his smartphone as he sat there in the audience. He searched the Internet for data to support his point of view, but he couldn’t find anything in an easy-to-present format.
“This is not what I want in my kid’s school district, but I had no compelling information to support my opinion,” Blumenthal said. “I did eventually find great data buried on the Center for Disease Control’s website. I took those statistics and created a graph.”
Blumenthal made this chart (also shown above, click to enlarge it), which is a simple two-bar graph illustrating key data: 1,800 children die from suicide each year, as opposed to an average of 17 who die as a result of school shootings. And he found research that shows most school shootings are caused by suicide ideation.
“It’s tragic, but what the data shows is that if you really want to help your kids, we need to invest in mental health and not bullet proof glass,” Blumenthal said.
From his effort to create that simple chart, Blumenthal said the idea for SwayWhat.com was born. He said he was inspired to launch a website that would provide people with tools to simplify data so that, at a glance, everyone could quickly understand the meaning of data that’s been researched and provided within the confines of the narrative in a news story.
Data visualization allows web users to gain a better understanding of concepts that are driven by numbers, Blumenthal says. There is plenty of technology available to collect and examine data, as both web and desktop applications have provided interfaces that are being used more and more by average web users, organizations, and news media. And with the rise in data visualization popularity, there has been a noticeable increase in the use of infographics to relay a message, identify trends, support opinions, or to make better-informed strategic decisions.
SwayWhat was launched in April 2013 as a free tool to share meaningful and topical information using data visualization. This methodology is changing how analytics are understood. SwayWhat not only provides its users with the tools to create charts, but also to share their ideas. Blumenthal said the website’s goal is to enable the public to find and share facts that matter and to serve as a clearinghouse to share data on hot-button issues on the web.
Blumenthal and his co-founding partner, Stephen Ostermiller, are working to introduce more people and organizations to the site. Currently, SwayWhat is bootstrapping its way into the market with revenue from friends, family, and a few seed funders. The goal is to reach a level of traffic that will allow SwayWhat to become financially sustainable.
Where do SwayWhat’s tools have the biggest impact? Blumenthal says he expects the site to increase the use of hard data during debates, including most political discussions. SwayWhat makes organizing and uploading charts simple. Blumenthal believes that data visualization can be used to improve the way people understand the world around them and to sway people’s opinions. He said that news organizations currently using the site have discovered increased clicks and readership by using SwayWhat to create charts and sharing them through their social media accounts.
“Charts don’t tell the whole story, but people using SwayWhat will find interesting data and then decide to read the story behind that data. We connect the charts back to the original articles, which hold the information people are seeking. It’s through this approach that people can make decisions based on data rather than opinion. Charts and graphs on SwayWhat equally represent both sides of the argument,” Blumenthal said, adding that he sees SwayWhat as a hybrid between news and social media, still in the early phase of development.
One of the most unique features of SwayWhat, Blumenthal said, is who is using the site thus far. He said the site already has attracted a diverse group of think tanks including the Heritage Foundation, No Labels, the Center for Economic & Policy Research, and the American Enterprise Institute. He said his proudest accomplishment isn’t the charts, but rather the organizational partners signing up.
“These are all very contrasting points of view that typically would be housed in very different locations,” Blumenthal said. “You don’t see these ideas in a place where they can be contrasted and viewed together. I’m building it as a platform that appeals to both sides of the political aisle that run the spectrum.”
Based in California, iCharts is a platform that connects market research publishers, who use economic and industry data, with professional consumers.
Infogr.am, which is based in the eastern European nation of Latvia, provides tools for users to create interactive info graphics and charts that can be placed into articles, blogs, or shared via social media. Within the same context of the ongoing discussion of school shootings, Infogr.am was used by Twitter user @GunDeaths and Slate.com to produce another chart tracking gun deaths since Newtown. Slate’s publication of the chart ensured that it would be widely viewed.
Infogr.am is similar to what SwayWhat is offering, but it’s free version appears to have no community-based tools through which users can recommend other members’ work or vouch for their trustworthiness as a source.
As SwayWhat evolves, rating data validity will become an important piece of the site, Blumenthal said. Currently, a crowdsourcing method is used to determine what sources are considered trustworthy through comments and user ratings. Blumenthal also is considering using a revenue validation service for the most trafficked charts on the site; when they reach a certain critical mass of views, the sources of the data will be validated by a sourced third party.
Blumenthal says he isn’t trying to compete with other data platforms, per se, but he is instead focused on encouraging people to use SwayWhat as another home to incorporate charts and graphs they may have created elsewhere.
Check out SwayWhat.com here.