Think Tank Watch recently interviewed Noah Blumental, Founder and CEO of chart-sharing startup SwayWhat. Following is the interview, with a focus on how think tanks can utilize the site.
Q: When was SwayWhat officially launched?
A: SwayWhat began inviting organizations to join in June of this year and now we have 30 groups posting charts to the site. The idea for SwayWhat came after I experienced an emotionally charged school board meeting after the Sandy Hook shooting tragedy. Angry, worried and frankly, scared, parents were calling for extreme measures like panic buttons and armed principals to protect our children. I knew I disagreed with them, but I couldn’t quickly find any information to support my argument in the minutes before it was my turn to speak. I spoke anyway, but I knew that without any facts my argument fell on deaf ears.
That night I went home and found information showing that the risk of students dying by suicide was about 100 times greater than by school shootings. This made it clear that if we’re going to invest a school’s budget to protect children, then it ought to be for mental well-being, not protecting schools from shooters.
I created a simple chart of this data, with just two bars, and presented it at the next school board meeting. Afterwards we were able to agree that arming the school with guns was not the right use of resources.
Q: How long did it take before think tanks were using the service?
A: Think tanks started using SwayWhat almost immediately, and from across the policy spectrum. We already have about thirty think tanks on board with more coming on every week, including groups like American Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Foundation, No Labels, and the Institute for Policy Studies. What’s been most exciting is we’re now seeing groups that we haven’t solicited joining and making charts.
Q: How has the outreach to think tanks been like so far? Has there generally been a positive response.
A: I never would have imagined such a positive response. Almost every single organization I speak with is excited about SwayWhat’s potential and starts to get involved. And they’re excited to spread the word. Every time I pitch a new think tank, it’s because I’ve been recommended to them by a peer. We’re really thankful that it’s been such a smooth ride so far.
Q: Have any think tanks actually approached you about the service?
A: One of the great things about SwayWhat is its ease of use. So think tanks and other organizations don’t necessarily need to approach us about the service—they can just sign up and immediately begin turning their data into charts and graphs, and we’re beginning to see them do this.
Q: I've noticed think tanks such as Heritage, CEPR, and IPS using the site; how do you plan to attract other think tanks to the service?
A: Word is already getting out and we’re seeing think tanks and policy groups sign up without our prior contact. We think contributing to SwayWhat is a no-brainer. We help broaden their exposure by allowing them to create charts and graphs that are easy to consume and share, and which are incredibly effective at making a point. Our early adopters say that the SwayWhat charts they post to Facebook and Twitter get 200 to 400 percent more engagement than other posts.
In addition, for new think tanks just getting started with us, we will help them establish a custom page for their own charts, and we’re constantly highlighting partners’ charts and graphs via social media. In fact, we are about to launch the next phase of our social media strategy, which will greatly increase the exposure of the early adopter organizations joining us now, while we are still so new.
Q: Can anyone add a think tank chart to the site or do you actually have to be from that think tank to do so?
A: Anyone can create any chart they want on the site using our chart-building tool and it is equally easy to upload an image you find on the web. However, users should first confirm with the copyright owner that they have the necessary permissions before uploading any images or content not created using our site. If someone posts or uses an image that they do not own or have permission to use, it may be subject to removal from our website.
Q: Who are your biggest online competitors, and how do you differ from them?
A: At a surface level, people compare us to infographic sites like Visual.ly and infogram, but I would never consider them to be competitors. In fact, we encourage our users to post those infographics and charts to SwayWhat as well.
Other data sites tend to emphasize their own chart-building tools. While we think we have a great and simple tool for making charts we are equally happy seeing charts and infographics posted that were built elsewhere.
Our goal is to be the place where the most important data on the most important topics is found and debated, regardless of where the chart was originally created.
Q: How is SwayWhat financed? Angel/venture money, self-funded, etc...?
A: Currently SwayWhat is 100% boot-strapped. We have very little overhead and a revenue model that we think can support our operations as we begin attracting more and more traffic. That said, we have big ideas for hiring subject matter experts to act as editors and we need to spread the word not just to hundreds of think tanks, but to millions of individual data consumers, so we may decide venture capital funding makes the most sense. For the foreseeable future however, we do not see ourselves taking venture capital.
Q: Any other comments about how you want think tanks to embrace SwayWhat?
A: We want think tanks and policy institutes to turn to SwayWhat to help them reach new audiences by presenting their information in powerful and compelling charts that are easy to create, consume and share.
Eventually, our goal is that SwayWhat becomes a way of life for everyone trying to make smarter, fact-based decisions. We are completely neutral about who posts what to SwayWhat – we just want the information to be based on fact.
Here is an interview the On Think Tanks recently conducted with SwayWhat.