Tableau Grows a Spine

Image of an American flag created with an Excel GraphI’m a big fan of Tableau Public, a website that offers free, first-class charting and mapping tools. People have used it to visualize everything from Major League Baseball statistics to the history of Japanese earthquakes. Unfortunately, I haven’t been a fan of some of Tableau’s recent actions.

Charting Cowardice

In December, Tableau yanked a visualization by James Ball on the contents of the Wikileaks cables. Frankly, I was disgusted. As I mentioned in this post, the viz didn’t contain theĀ cables themselves. It allowed the user to explore the subjects that the cables covered. Ball was reporting on metadata, helping readers understand the context of the controversy.

By all accounts, Tableau hadn’t been directly asked by the U.S. government to take the visualization down; they apparently did so in a knee-jerk reaction to the political climate. At the time, they offered a weak justification that the creator did not have the legal right to make the data available.

The action angered a lot of people in the business intelligence community, including members of Tableau’s staff. Now, three months later, Tableau is taking steps to right that wrong.

A Fresh Start

Tableau sent out a new data policy recently. It’s two screens written in common-sense language, organized under four big, blue headings:

  1. The data you publish is your responsibility.
  2. Our guiding principle is freedom of speech.
  3. There is a formal process to take down content.
  4. This is a living document.

Is this a corporate dodge, shifting responsibility for content off Tableau’s shoulders? Partially, but that’s not a bad thing. We are the generators of the content. We need to be responsible for its legality. Tableau is there to facilitate us, not to babysit us.

Among the content that Tableau reserves the right to take down is “content that violates U.S. federal criminal law.” This was a major argument used against the Wikileaks distributors, and it gives me pause.

To their credit, Tableau states that in cases that have “shades of gray,” they will consult an external advisory board consisting of a journalist, an academic, and a media lawyer.

The New Journalism?

The inclusion of a journalist adviser caught my attention. The creators of these visualizations are citizen journals, like CNN’s iReporters. They’re working behind the scenes to investigate trends hidden in data, then sharing their findings with others. At their best, their creations rival or surpass multimedia put out by traditional media outlets.

The new policy won’t please everyone, but it’s a step in the right direction. It brings far more transparency to a process that, in the Wikileaks debacle, seemed rash and arbitrary. And it lets us, the data analysts, take both the credit and the responsibility for the things we say.

So let’s say more things worth fighting over.

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