The on think tanks interview: Noah Blumenthal, CEO of SwayWhat
We’re closing in on the final deadline for submissions for Round 3 of the On Think Tanks Data Visualisation Competition. And we’ve been continuing to scour the web for resources to help think tanks develop data visualisations and to get their ideas across to new audiences. A lot of the resources we found were designed to help with the technicalities of developing visualisations themselves. But we were intrigued when we came across SwayWhat, a tool that not only helps create charts, but also serves as a platform to share ideas. If I had to describe it in a sentence, it’s SlideShare for data visualisations – but it’s more ambitious for that. It hopes to bring evidence to the most political of discussions.
I had to find out more, so I got in touch with SwayWhat CEO, Noah Blumenthal, to understand better how think tanks might take advantage of their services.
JK: Let’s start from the beginning, what was your inspiration for creating this platform?
NB: SwayWhat was founded as a social impact startup to make it easy for people and organizations to create, find and share fact-based charts and graphs on today’s most important topics.
The idea came in the weeks after the Sandy Hook school shooting tragedy. I was a regular at our local school board meetings, which typically had just a few attendees. After the shootings, however, the turnout was enormous, and parents wanted action to protect their children. Proposed ideas included panic buttons, bulletproof glass and armed principals. There were no facts behind their heartfelt arguments – just passion and emotion.
However, while I felt differently about how or whether the school board should react, I had no facts to support my position either. And even though I had time before it was my turn to speak, I was unable to quickly find the data I needed to make a convincing argument. I did speak, but I don’t know that I was any more convincing than anyone else.
After the meeting I dove into research on school shootings and student safety, and eventually found compelling data on the issue – data that was buried deep in the Centers for Disease Control website. I used the data to create a two-column chart that backed my position. The chart, which showed a 100:1 ratio of student suicides to school shooting deaths, swayed the other parents and the school board to the position that if we truly wanted to protect our students from harm, we’d be much better served by investing in our kids’ psychological wellbeing.
This effectively ended the more sensationalized arguments and the discussion moved back to how we could better educate our children.
NB: SwayWhat doesn’t want to compete with those sites – in fact, we encourage people to post their Infogram or Visually infographics on SwayWhat, as well. Our primary focus is being a social space where any kind of chart, graph, map or infographic can be posted no matter how or where it was created. We are creating a single space where all sides of the most important issues facing the world today can be presented and examined together.
JK: A few years ago, the notion of the ‘filter bubble’ became really prominent through Eli Pariser. He gave an interesting TED Talk, and has a blog and books about the idea – that as Google and Facebook increasingly tailor results, you get more and more insulated from external ideas. And, of course, this is a modern extension of ‘confirmation bias’, where we go to information sources we trust to tell us what we wanted to hear anyway. So how are you working to break through the bubble?
NB: The fact is that we too often turn to sources that support our predispositions and beliefs. Rather than dive deep into issues like foreign affairs to decide whether foreign aid makes sense, for example, we simply align what we feel is right with an outlet or source that enforces that opinion. We want to break that pattern with SwayWhat by making it fast, easy and fun to find both the information you agree with and also the information that might challenge your assumptions and beliefs.
And for think tanks this is a particularly important issue. Think tanks are quite good at reaching the like-minded – but they need to be more missionary in their approach, and to reach people who would otherwise not come across their important research. SwayWhat can be a missionary outpost where they can connect with the undecided and the opposition.
Our idea is that SwayWhat is a sort of neutral ground of verifiable facts – so if you are looking for data on, say, the recession, you know that SwayWhat is the place where you can find the hard data you need in order to take an informed position.
JK: One of the things I find interesting is that people often assume evidence speaks for itself, as if evidence gathering and evidence collection is somehow a neutral, apolitical act. But it’s not at all – research may be responding to funders or researchers’ ideologies and interests, and anyway data might be displayed in a particular way to emphasise a particular point. How does SwayWhat tackle the notion of rigour and bias in the visualisations it shares?
NB: This is an important point, and we hope to improve everyone’s ability to recognize and find quality data. Right now when data is presented on any organization’s own website there is too little consideration given to who collected the data or ran the study. By creating uniform standards for sourcing we hope to build greater awareness about this exact issue.
Often data integrity – or the lack thereof – is as much about the data you leave out as what you put in. We make it harder for users to present misleading data or half-truths because it is so easy for another user to present the full story or contradictory data. Our tags and lists of related charts make it easy to surf through connected content and see which data is presented in the fairest manner.
Further, we have a crowdsourcing validation process in which users can trust and rate each other based on content quality. That resulting percentage will generate a “SwayStrength” score, which will tell you how trustworthy and factual a user’s data is.
We are only seven months old, but as we grow, we will also bring on subject matter experts to serve as editors and fact-checkers, making sure that our highest profile and most-read charts are accurate.
JK: On Think Tanks is a blog targeted at those working in think tanks around the world and across the political spectrum. Why should those working in think tanks use SwayWhat as a platform to share their ideas?
NB: There are a couple of important reasons: First and most important, it increases your exposure. SwayWhat is extremely easy to use and has a great payoff. Our early adopters tell us that the SwayWhat charts they post to Facebook and Twitter get 2-4 times more engagement than their normal posts. That is a phenomenal return for an activity that typically takes 3-5 minutes to create a post.
Second, we offer think tanks a way to reach new audiences. This is important in shaping public opinion, building influence and even raising funds. Third, as SwayWhat grows to be a highly trafficked public forum for data, groups will have to sign on to be a part of the discussion – if only to be sure that their sides of arguments are heard.
JK: A lot of the charts I’ve seen on SwayWhat are targeted at an American audience. Do you see it as mainly an American platform, or would you like to be more global in nature?
NB: Many of the most important issues we face as humans are global in nature, from the environment to the economy, so our vision is to be a global resource – just as YouTube and Wikipedia are. And I’m pleased to say that we are now starting to see some traction, as The Equality Trust, a UK-based organization, recently began posting charts to SwayWhat.
The early US focus is really more a function of practicality. We started with people we knew in US think tanks, and have continually added think tanks as a result of their referrals and word of mouth.
JK: Thanks so much for taking time during the busy autumn season for a chat. On Think Tanks is committed to stimulating more evidence-informed debate around the world, so we’ll definitely be following SwayWhat as you continue to grow!