Noah Blumenthal will never forget the school board meeting he attended at his kid’s school in New York after the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting. The room was packed, filled to the brim with frightened, angry parents.
Person after person stood up to lobby the school board to adopt major security measures. They wanted to arm principals, set up bullet proof locks, give classrooms panic buttons.
The extreme rhetoric worried Blumenthal. He wanted to stand up and disagree, but he didn’t have any solid points backing him up. He started surfing on his phone for compelling data that would support his opinion, but he couldn’t find any. ”Im a strong advocate for evidence based decision making,” Blumenthal says.
When he got home that night he spent hours combing the Internet till he finally found statistics buried on the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s website. He made this chart, showing the average number of deaths per year from school shootings — 17 — compared to the number from suicides –1801. He took the chart to the next school board meeting.
“I made the argument if we care about our kids’ health and safety and well-being we would invest in their psychological well being, not all these supposed security measures,” Blumenthal says. Chart in hand, he argued his case and other parents agreed.
“That was the epiphany moment: it should have been easier for me to find create and display the data,” Blumenthal says. “We live in the Information Age.” Thus, the idea for SwayWhat was born.
SwayWhat is a website that makes it easy for people and organizations to build and upload charts about hot button issues. Since its inception, Blumenthal has brought on an impressive list of think tanks as partners: No Labels, the Center for Economic & Policy Research, the American Enterprise Institute, and the Heritage Foundation are some examples.
These organizations can create charts using data they’ve researched or data gathered by other organizations. SwayWhat provides the platform where individuals or institutions from all political and opinion spectrums can represent the stats they care about.
“The problem with so much of that information is it all lives in its own vacuum and we don’t really ever compare effectively what the Heritage Foundation and Center for American Progress are saying on one topic,” Blumenthal says. “Our focus is creating a space where anyone can share the visual data that is most compelling, relevant and important for most critical questions of our time.”
SwayWhat’s whole pitch is that it’s encouraging fact-based debate over rhetoric. Of course, sometimes the same statistical chart leads to entirely different conclusions from different groups. “I was nervous telling the SwayWhat story to conservative organizations,” Blumenthal says. “But I showed them the chart from the school board meeting and they said, ‘See there’s never been clearer evidence that gun control isn’t the problem.’”
At the moment Blumenthal and his co-founder are bootstrapping the venture, with the hopes of getting enough traffic to monetize it. They started it in beta six months ago, and have built out eight different chart categories — like business, sports, health, and politics — with plans to expand to twelve.
Anyone can submit a chart, so there’s no vetting procedure to make sure the stats are up to snuff. In other words, Blumenthal has decided to grow the site as a platform, not a curated publication. It’s a smart move, given that if SwayWhat had to vet each chart, it wouldn’t be able to scale very quickly. But at the same time, the lack of vetting will perhaps be SwayWhat’s biggest drawback for users.
Individuals can vote certain charts up or down, which Blumenthal says works as crowdsourced fact-checking. He also says that anyone who creates the chart links to the original data, so users can check out the source.
The biggest challenge facing SwayWhat is likely to be generating interest. Do people really care about graphs and charts enough to go to the site? How big an audience can SwayWhat really get? Blumenthal is unashamedly a data geek, and SwayWhat’s initial success will require him finding likeminded bedfellows.
This week marks the company’s official launch to the public.
[Image courtesy Thinkstock]