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The Ethics of Business Presentations

I saw a presentation about business dashboard software by a guy from MicroStrategy yesterday, and started to wonder about the ethics of attribution in the business world. He showed a demo of a "bubble chart" that happened to be about fertility rate and life expectancy in different parts of the world over the last 20 years – in other words, Hans Rosling's example and visualization. There was no attribution, he made it sound like he had come up with that himself.

This was part of a small meeting of about 20 business folks, and it was sponsored by MicroStrategy. The presentation wasn't bad, though I did see a few of the things Stephen Few likes to jump on: gauges, flashy graphics, and he said something like "the most important thing of course is to have dashboard desktop-publishing quality output." To his credit, he cited Gene Zelazny's Say it With Charts, which has a food-pyramid style of recommendations for how many percent of your dashboard should be bars, lines, pies, etc. And if I remember correctly, 50% should be lines and bars, and only 5% pies. Most of his examples were also pretty reasonable, despite the occasional gratuitous animation. But I digress.

Their bubble chart is very similar to gapminder, showing size and position, and of course including playback controls. You can also split a bubble into smaller parts if it is aggregated, and that also looks exactly like in gapminder. But what ticked me off was the example: life expectancy vs. fertility rate by continent over time. Couldn't he have at least picked some other time-dependent data? I doubt that Rosling would mind, but still.

He did mention Stephen Few's and Edward Tufte's books at the end (which I found interesting, especially Few), but no mention of Rosling. The do use a lot of relatively current visualization ideas (including treemaps, which they call heatmaps), and that is certainly a good thing. And they can't give credit for everything in a presentation. But when they take such a big example almost verbatim, shouldn't there be at least a mention of the name? Or don't people do that in business? And is that considered ethically okay?

Posted by Robert Kosara on November 21, 2008.