Category Archives: Ethics

Blurred Lines: A Tale of Two Dashboard (Contests)

Readers:

This is an important read for anyone who works in the data visualization profession. I ask you to be reflective as you read this. I use myself as an example of what not to do.

For the past two years (2013 and 2014), I have submitted an entry into the MicroStrategy World Dashboard Contest. In both years, I was named one of the winners of this competition. I have written about my work and about the competition on this blog. But I did not tell the whole story. I did not mention that my entries were reproductions of the original ideas and designs of other people. I took liberties that, at the time, seemed innocent. As an academic pursuit, I attempted to recreate these originals using a different tool set (in these two cases, MicroStrategy Report Services and the Visualization SDK) to see if it could be done. I spent time trying to develop methods to allow me to recreate the original visualizations almost exactly as their authors had idealize and developed them. I meant no harm, but what I did was wrong.

There are lines and sometimes we cross them. There are lines and sometimes we don’t see them. There are lines that are bold and there are lines that are blurry. The line that I crossed appears bold in retrospect but was blurred at the time. I had spent a considerable amount of time developing these visualizations. It is quite possible that I spent more time trying to recreate the original than the author spent developing the original.

I know now that this does not matter.

I took the ideas and content and submitted it as my own. I am sorry for this and I have learned a great deal as a result. I now want to use this discussion as an example for others.

2013 MicroStrategy Dashboard Contest

My entry in the 2013 Dashboard Contest was a Student Performance Dashboard, which was based on portions of the top three entries in Stephen Few’s Dashboard Design Contest that was held in late 2012. The majority of my dashboard was based on the original design of the first place winner, Jason Lockwood, who had developed his dashboard in Photoshop.

At work, several of us were talking about Jason’s winning entry and how you could probably develop it fairly easily in Tableau, but probably not so easily in MicroStrategy. Being a strong proponent of MicroStrategy, I argued that I could develop that exact dashboard using MicroStrategy’s Report Services and their Visualization SDK. My co-workers challenged me to try it and I began my mission. Unexpectedly, MicroStrategy soon announced their 2013 Dashboard Contest and I thought this would provide me additional motivation by developing the dashboard for their contest.

Back to Stephen’s contest. Back in August of 2012, Stephen Few, data visualization evangelist and author of the seminal book, Information Dashboard Design, announced a contest to design a dashboard following best practices and principles. The contest required participants to design the dashboard using student performance and assessment data that Stephen provided. Any graphic design tool (e.g., Photoshop, InDesign and Excel) or BI tool could be used to create the dashboard.

The winners were announced in October of that year. There were 91 entries. The contest focused more on innovative dashboard design principles rather than the use of BI tools. The winners and the tool they used are:

1st Place:           Jason Lockwood     Photoshop 2nd Place:          Shamik Sharma      Excel 2010 3rd Place:          Joey Cherdarchuk   Excel 2010

To the best of my knowledge (and Stephen’s), none of the 91 participants in the contest used MicroStrategy to create their dashboard. A few of the participants did use Tableau and SAS. This fact alone made me want to create an innovative dashboard to demonstrate the capabilities of MicroStrategy.

Below are examples of the first, second and third place winners entries.

Jason’s entry (first place)

Jason - First Place

Shamik’s entry (second place)

Shamik - Second Place

Joey’s entry (third place)

Joey - Third Place

Below is a screenshot of my entry developed using MicroStrategy and Stephen’s sample data.

Michael - MicroStrategy Version 2013

As you can see by comparing my dashboard to Jason’s. I tried to follow Jason’s entry very closely since my goal was to reproduce his entry as close as possible using MicroStrategy.

I have emphasized the word “reproduce” because in my goal to prove the capabilities and functionalities of MicroStrategy, I now realize, in retrospect, that I crossed a line in using Jason’s original idea, design and work to create my dashboard. Now, if I was doing this in my basement for my own edification and learning, that probably would have been o.k. since it was not being viewed by a public audience. However, when I entered the dashboard in MicroStrategy’s contest, albeit developed using my own skills in MicroStrategy, I was presenting someone else’s original ideas and design work without their permission. This, I now understand, was wrong.

I have had several e-mail conversations with Professor Alberto Cairo about this. Alberto is considered by many (including me) to be one of the industry’s leading experts on infographics and a person I respect and view as a mentor. I was seeing grey areas in what I had done where Alberto was correctly seeing things more in black and white.

Below are some of Alberto’s thoughts on what I did and some analogies he made. I have included his comments completely in quotes to indicate these are his thoughts and have not been modified by me at all.

“There are not really clear-cut rules about plagiarism in visualization in infographics, which is a shame. It’s an area in which a lot of thinking and writing needs to be done.

But when doing ethical reasoning you can always use analogies. When in doubt, imagine that your graphic is a news article or a research paper. Would it be appropriate if anyone took what you wrote and then just make it interactive without getting permission from the author (you) first? Would it be enough to mention you in a description of what was done? It wouldn’t. Quoting a few lines from someone (in between quotation marks) is fine. Copying and pasting paragraph after paragraph is not, if it’s not without proper permission.

In visualization, things get really tricky sometimes. For instance, if someone creates a simple bar graph based on ten data points, do I need to get permission to create a similar graph? Probably not if a) the graphic form is so common, b) I can have access to the underlying data. But when you copy an entire layout, or an unusual graphic form, then things become problematic. Again, going back to my analogy before, it’d be equal to copying an article, a newspaper story, or a blog post. Even if you mention the source, it’s not something you can do without asking for permission. It would be a clear case of plagiarism, and it could even get you into legal trouble.”

Now, I take full responsibility for what I did and apologize to Jason, Shamik, and Joey. I do need to say, my primary purpose was to create recreate cool dashboards or infographics I had seen, in my tool of choice which is MicroStrategy. The key thing I was trying to do was show clients and business partners that I could create the same thing they see in Tableau and Qlikview using the MicroStrategy platform.

 To continue with Alberto’s thoughts on this, I again include an exact quote of what he said.

“I understand it, but copying the layout, the structure, the content, and even the headline and intro copy (on top of everything else) is not the only issue, but also submitting the results to contests with no permission from the original authors, and without mentioning them.

Again, analogy: Imagine that I take one of the wonderful posts you have written about historical visualizations –some of them are indeed great,– and I reproduce it with no permission from you, but I casually attribute it to you once: “Hey, I’ve just found this great post in Michael’s website; I’m building on top of it, adding some pictures, and making it interactive.” You’d certainly feel uncomfortable if I didn’t contact you first. And you’ll probably get really upset if, besides that, I get a writing award thanks to that post (without mentioning you,) to which I just added a few visual elements, and interaction.”

Alberto is correct. I would be upset too.

2014 MicroStrategy Dashboard Contest

My entry in the 2014 Dashboard Contest was An Exploration of Tax Data. It was based on an original idea, text and design by Jim Uden, one of my classmates in Professor Cairo’s MOOC course on Data Visualization and Infographics.

I really liked the An Exploration of Tax Data visualization created by Jim. I liked it so much in fact, that I wanted to make a working example for our development team at work using MicroStrategy. I create a lot of dashboard “templates” for our development team in MicroStrategy, which is our enterprise standard BI tool.

So, using Jim’s data, text and format exactly, I created a dashboard in MicroStrategy with some tweaks to it.

Below is a screenshot of Jim’s original work.

Jim - Taxation

Below is my version created using MicroStrategy Report Services and their Visualization SDK.

Michael - MicroStrategy Version 2014

I used horizontal stacked bar charts instead so that the viewer can visually see how social security and income tax rate add up to the total and explains visually why the countries are ordered the way they are on the dashboard. I also separated out $100K and $300K percentages into separate visuals.

In addition, I added the flags of the countries.

Now, you don’t see any numbers on the data points in this dashboard. The reason you don’t see them is because they appear when you mouse over a bar where you then see the country, category and the percent value as a tooltip.

However, by using Jim’s data, text and design exactly from his original, and without getting his permission first, I again crossed the line. I have emphasized the word “exactly” because in my goal to prove the capabilities and functionalities of MicroStrategy, I now realize again in retrospect, that I crossed a line in using Jim’s original idea, data, text, design and work to create my dashboard.

I also discussed this with Alberto and his comments were,

“If this were just a class project for the MOOC, you should have asked for permission from Jim Uden, but I don’t consider it a huge ethical problem. After all, when you submitted it to the forums, you mentioned that it was an interactive version of Jim’s project, and you thanked him publicly in your message. You didn’t let him know about this directly, by contacting him (which is, again, the appropriate thing to do,) but you were transparent when you credited “Jim Uden” for the original idea. The true ethical problem arises when you didn’t do the same in your post about the exercise in your blog, and when you submitted it to a contest.”

I again take full responsibility for what I did and apologize to Jim.

I approached Professor Cairo again with another question: What are the ground rules for the use of another person’s materials. For instance, a lot of blogs (including mine) will post an infographic they have seen in a magazine or on a site like visual.ly and discuss it. Are we plagiarizing if we cite the author, magazine, etc.?

Professor Cairo responded,

“As for (this) point, there’s something called “fair use” in US copyright legislation. It’s quite fuzzy and controversial, but it basically says that if you reproduce a piece of art just to comment on it or to review it (not to build on it or to change it, not to get profit from it, etc.), you are fine. Academics and bloggers do this all the time. However, some media organizations are known for having asked bloggers to withdraw images of graphics in the past. They have the right to do so, although I think that it’s a bit silly.”

In Summary

I feel this was an important topic for me to discuss and clear my conscience. I would not be honest if I did not say this was very difficult and embarrassing to write. Professor Cairo reminded me it takes courage to do this. Maybe so, but I don’t feel very courageous at the moment.

Next year, if MicroStrategy has another Dashboard contest, I plan to create the entire thing from scratch. Data, text, design, colors, fonts, etc. It will be from my vision only. However, over the next year, I think this is an important topic to discuss in our data visualization community with social media like Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, Instagram, Tumblr, etc. growing in use every day. At what point have we crossed the line? Or are they blurred lines?

I would love to hear your thoughts on this and opinions. I may not like what I will hear, but I will hear and reflect on what you have to say.

Thank you for reading this very long post. I hope you see the value in it as much as I do.

Best Regards,

Michael

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