Startup’s Founder Hopes to Change Political Discourse With Data

by Meryl Willett | Nov 16, 2013 2:11pm
(11) Comments | Commenting has expired
Posted to: Communication 2.0, News Media 2.0, Startups

EDITOR’S NOTE: On July 1, 2014, we updated this story to reflect the rebranding of SwayWhat.com to SavvyRoo.com. It is essentially the same site and same idea, but with a new title and new logo.

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 (which has since rebranded itself as SavvyRoo.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.”

SwayWhat isn’t alone in this market space. Several other websites provide similar tools, including iCharts, and Infogr.am.

Based in California, iCharts is a platform that connects market research publishers, who use economic and industry data, with professional consumers.

Slate.com 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.

EDITOR’S NOTE: On July 1, 2014, we updated this story to reflect the rebranding of SwayWhat.com to SavvyRoo.com. It is essentially the same site and same idea, but with a new title and new logo.

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(11) Comments

posted by: dano860 | November 19, 2013  9:04am

He is right, they are sort of buried by the CDC but ,after all, it is a government operation.
Here is a link to some of that data.
http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/injury.htm
The amazing stat is the number of deaths related to injury. They don’t break that down into categories, falls, bludgeoning, stabbings etc. leaving us to wonder what is in such a large number.
Great story Meryl, thanks for the valuable information.

posted by: Joebigjoe | November 19, 2013  4:32pm

Whoa whoa whoa. Great concept but it will never really fly. Why? Because it has been proven that people on the right are more about facts and people on the left are more about feelings. You aren’t going to change the minds of left leaning people based on facts and data visualization. If you could they would be conservatives who are more black and white thinkers.

posted by: gutbomb86 | November 21, 2013  11:38pm

gutbomb86

Of course, Joe! You’re definitely not going to change anyone’s mind - particularly when your data is wrong!

It’s always black and white - there’s never a level of complexity or uncertainty that can’t be simplified by a conservative. It’s always one of two things: the conservative’s opinion (regardless of topic) and, well, the rest of us who live in the real world. . .

I’ll point out the obvious here, Joe, but “belligerent”  and “angry” are emotions as well. Your crowd seems to feed on those two.

Yeah, it’s all those flighty, emotional liberals who don’t use data ... right. (Ahem, President Obama wins twice using data and leaves your operation’s brains, Karl Rove, sputtering on national television, unable to explain himself on election night. Twice… and hundreds of millions of dollars later both times.)

Nope - no one on the left knows anything about data, right Joe? It’s all based on “emotion.”

Got your clocks cleaned twice and you’re pointing fingers at “liberals” because you think they are “emotional.”

Please. Spare us.

A loud minority can disrupt to everyone’s detriment, Joe, but they can’t lead.

posted by: Joebigjoe | November 22, 2013  9:34am

Gutbomb if you saw my Linked in profile you would see my expertise is in data and analytics, but getting deep into that topic isnt necessary to show you the light and prove you wrong!

Facts

1) The Obama campaign did a phenomenal job using Big Data to get out the vote

2) As people like karl Rove were telling the truth and using FACTS about Obamacare that millions of people would in FACT not get to keep their insurance or doctors, they were told that they were liars by the liberals. We were accused of using scare tactics but we were only following what was in black and white on paper.

3) Right before the election there was Benghazi and again as we said “look at the facts this was a terrorist attack NOT a video” we were again called liars. As we know today it was all lies used by the Obama administration and their most ardent liberal supporters because the facts would have hurt Obamas chance to get re-elected.

4) Using FACTS provided by Gallop and CBS News and others in the last week, had Obama told the truth using facts and not preyed on the emotional fears of left wing America he would lose the election to Mitt Romney by 5-6 points. Hmm, I guess when the facts come out and are forced down the throats of libs, even they can get it. 14 Dem Senators are in big trouble because their facts in their states say they are in big trouble because they didnt tell the truth on facts and now people are hurting.

5) Finally look at what happened yesterday with the Senate nuclear option. Funny (or pathetically sad for this country) there is video of a young Senator Obama on April 13, 2005 saying that the nuclear option would be horrible for this country and now today he cheerleads it along with other liberals that dont have the courage to ask “hmm why was it so bad Mr. president in 2005 yet its so good now?”

The answer doesnt matter because with liberals most of the time its not about the facts or historical data as long as the agenda to weaken this country because of left wing guilt moves forward.

posted by: gutbomb86 | December 4, 2013  4:11pm

gutbomb86

Joe - for a guy who claims to have a background in data, you tend to make a lot of remarkably unsupported statements and sweeping generalizations based on what appears to be a flawed world view rooted in right-wing nonsense. You tend to fall back to your own analysis of information and then call it fact. You appear to NEED to put people in a “liberal” or “conservative” box in order to interact. When you do stuff like that, you hurt your own cause. I stopped being interested in what you’ve got to say a long time ago because I know where it’s coming from. And it’s not coming from “fact.” By all means, please try to deny whatever you’d like to deny about the Benghazi incident. You knew nothing more about it than anyone else did at the time and at the end of the day, none of what was said in the first 48 hours afterward even mattered because you have yet to find out definitively if protests related to the video were unrelated. Did any of the attackers ever take part in those events? Did they ever discuss using those events as cover for other plans, regardless of whether they took part in those protests?

Joe you’re just full of assumptions and horse-hockey in an effort to make partisan points. Who needs it? Let me know when you can feign a little outrage over all the diplomats who got dead during the previous administration.

posted by: Joebigjoe | December 4, 2013  6:17pm

Hey Gut, this is the only response I need give you.

Your lack of knowledge of what happened in Benghazi and how this administration knowing full well it was not the truth threw a little man out west under the bus for a video that no one had watched, and in your world thats OK.

posted by: gutbomb86 | December 4, 2013  8:32pm

gutbomb86

Joe - and yet again you’re still making bad assumptions about the information you receive for partisan purposes. FACT: There were protests based on the video during the lead-up to the attack at Benghazi. FACT: NO ONE knows anything about how the attackers planned the attack or whether the protests for the video helped their process even in an ancillary way. FACT: YOU and your conservative pals immediately leaped to the partisan conclusion that those protests were entirely unrelated within minutes of the possibility being verbalized, NOT based on FACT, but rather based on partisan assumptions because someone from an administration you hate FOR OBVIOUS REASONS uttered the phrases. Meanwhile, we all watched the president say otherwise and call it a terrorist attack - regardless of the b.s. semantic nonsense from the right wing - within 12 hours of the incident.

You really should get your facts straight and peel back the b.s. - sorry I had to draw blood but sometimes the truth has to sting to sink in. You’ve got nothing, and you’re still failing to even feign concern over numerous practically identical incidents during the previous administration and others. SPARE US the b.s. sanctimony.

posted by: Joebigjoe | December 5, 2013  8:58am

Gutbomb seriously now. You really believe what you just said? Seriously ?

Stop watching MSNBC and start watching the actual hearings.

AP report from the hearings and the AP is nothing but a friend to this administration. Even they got it right.

Mr. Hicks, deputy chief of mission at the time of the attack, said the YouTube video was never an event in Libya, and no one in Benghazi or Tripoli saw what was happening as a spontaneous street protest. Beth Jones, the acting assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, sent an email on Sept. 12 saying: “The group that conducted the attacks, Ansar al-Sharia, is affiliated with Islamic terrorists.” Mr. Hicks himself said he spoke to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at 2 a.m. Benghazi time the day after the attack and told her it was a planned attack, not a street protest.

Now my words. Obama called it an act of terror which is careflly chosen verbiage to not call it a terrorist attack. If I get in your face with my size and scream at you to intimidate you I have committed an act of terror but I have not committed a terrorist attack. Adam Lanza committed an act of terror but nowhere would anyone call it a terrorist attack.

Finally in the last few days there have been leaks that 8 CIA members there testified behind closed doors that there were no protests before. You seem to know alot more than they do yet they were right there. I guess the non disclosure agreements the administration wanted them to sign didnt stop them from telling the truth.

posted by: gutbomb86 | December 14, 2013  3:13pm

gutbomb86

Essentially, Joe, you’re just not a credible source of information and that’s been my point all along. You and your clown conservatism crew went leaping to conclusions the moment that attacks occurred and you still are today. Regardless of whether one member of the administration offered an inaccurate description of what was occurring is meaningless in these situations. It is in the gov’t's interest to offer all kinds of garbage to throw off the perpetrators, and despite your statements to the contrary, there were large public protests in the weeks before the attack. That’s a fact. You seem to think that the intelligence community is going to give you information that is accurate and we’ve seen time and again that that is not the case. Yet you’re diving right in there. Ridiculous but par for your course.

Your statements regarding the president’s use of “act of terror” vs. “terrorist act” are evidence enough to prove that you can’t make a reasonable judgement or even a reasonable observation about the Obama administration. And we know why that is, Joe. We know the reason for your partisanship. That’s why people dismiss it.

posted by: gutbomb86 | December 14, 2013  3:50pm

gutbomb86

And this should come as no surprise, the AP is reporting that there was a disagreement within the CIA chain of command - not between the Obama administration and the people with the “magic wand” of mythical American-Superiority-At-Everything that might have saved anyone in that compound. Apparently the disagreement cost them about 30 minutes of response time. That was it. 30 minutes. And no one seems to think it would have mattered to the outcome.

This makes sense, so I’ll probably have to explain it to you. The whole diplomatic mission has been underfunded for a variety of “compassionately conservative” reasons and, frankly, overseas diplomatic jobs are very dangerous even with adequate security. Maybe that’s why guys like you, Joe, give a free pass to the Bush administration for the dozens of ex-pats who died in similar circumstances during his train-wreck administration. (crickets?) I’m still waiting for your mea culpa on why none of you seem to care about the diplomats who died from 2000 to 2008, or about the thousands of American combat troops who died overseas under “Roveland’s” false pretenses.

So, here we are, in a COMPLETELY UNRELATED story, talking about Benghazi. Here’s the answer, Joe - it’s a dangerous job and people get killed sometimes when they’re serving American interests. There are varying degrees of risk in any country experiencing unrest - and clearly, with protests leading up to the attacks and active extremism in the region, there was more risk than they accounted for.

But, once again, this is going to be hard for you to understand because it’s a lot of shades of gray and guys like you, Joe, can’t seem to function outside of absolutes in white and black.

posted by: Joebigjoe | December 14, 2013  7:33pm

Gutbomb its not unrelated as we are talking about facts and ability to see facts and cut through the BS.

Tell you what, you drink your KoolAid and out of defference to you I’ll drink my KoolAid and we’ll have a Joint Select Committee get to the bottom of it?

Wouldnt that be the best thing? I think it would. I guess according you I’m a partisan whose ideas are worthless so let’s get to the bottom of this situation and in the end maybe I eat crow?

Won’t happen because the Dems are blocking it because they know the truth and the truth hurts. If this was a Republican issue (trust me the way they are acting now most of them need to be tossed too) then I guess the Republicans wouldnt want the truth out either.

Black and white? Yep. When someone says even outside of politics that we should get to the bottom of an issue and figure out the facts, my experience is the ones who would be hurt most and are lying arent the ones that want that to occur.

You know darn well what the real story is here. This was a small diplomatic outpost compared to others around the world, it was attacked on 9-11 because Hilary Clinton let her guard down (not Obama), and when it happened they went into damage control because it wasnt just an attack that reasonable people can second guess them on, but Chris Stevens was involved in some back door arms dealing for Syrian rebels, and that would be really messy for Obama.