Tableau made a huge mistake when they pulled a visualization of WikiLeaks statistics from their Tableau Public website a few months ago. But they’ve used the opportunity to develop a new policy for content posted there that is very clear and based on the idea of free speech. This removes a big obstacle for journalists who want to use the service: they no longer have to fear that their hard work might be destroyed because somebody does not like it.
It all started with a visualization of leaked diplomatic cables on WikiLeaks that Tableau decided to take down after Senator Lieberman made a “public request” that American organizations not host WikiLeaks data. Whether Lieberman had any basis for doing this, and whether this was in any way binding for anybody is a separate issue, but what got people up in arms was that Tableau was not even hosting WikiLeaks data: the visualizations and the underlying data were statistics about the cables, not the cables themselves. It’s as if the fact that murder is illegal had made it a crime to publish homicide statistics.
The backlash was quite impressive, actually. Tableau’s blog posting on the matter received over 530 comments, most of them very negative. I also saw Tableau mentioned alongside Amazon on several mainstream websites, mostly tech news sites criticizing the move.
I don’t know who made that decision, and I don’t know if the people responsible thought that they were doing the right thing at the time, or just trying to stay out of a potentially hairy situation. But I do know that at least some of the key people at Tableau are really embarrassed by this, and that they took this as an opportunity to come up with a set of rules for how to handle such situations in the future.
A Safe Haven for Visualizations
In the interest of full disclosure, I should perhaps mention that I was involved in the creation of this policy (though in a rather minor way). I mostly made suggestions about clarity and that it should be written from the point of view of the user, not the company (Apple’s AppStore reviewing guidelines are an impressive standard in that regard).
Tableau Public’s new data policy is clearly inspired by the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), which provides a way for companies to host media for users without being directly liable for what users upload. This is what has made websites like YouTube possible in the first place, which would otherwise simply not be feasible at the scale they are operating (it would be impossible to screen all those videos before they are published).
Just like the DMCA, Tableau Public’s policy defines rules for what content is off limits, and describes a way for copyright holders to report infringing content so it can be removed. Tableau clearly states that they will not actively police content:
You are responsible for the content you publish to Tableau Public. We provide Tableau Public as a free service; we are not the owners or publishers of the data on our servers. We don’t screen content before it is published and we don’t make decisions about what content can exist on Tableau Public except as described in this policy.
The guiding principle is free speech, with the usual exceptions: child porn, hate speech, illegal content. For cases where the policy does not provide a clear answer, an advisory board of three external experts has been appointed, who will determine whether a visualization needs to be removed. The policy does not name them, but the accompanying blog post does.
The policy even provides some helpful common-sense advice for people about to publish potentially problematic data:
You should be mindful of the data you choose to post. If you publish libelous or defamatory statements about someone, you can be sued by that person. If you publish confidential data about your customers that they would expect you to keep private, they might seek recourse, including legal action. If you publish data about people that embarrasses them, you can expect them to get angry at you.
What This Means for Journalism
I am convinced that journalism needs more visualization, and a lot of journalists seem to think so, too. But the big issue is a question of what tool to invest time in. If you build an elaborate visualization for your article only to have it pulled because somebody didn’t like the message or content, you’re not going to do that a second time. When the visualization is provided by a service (which they almost invariably are, these days), the service better be trustworthy and sustainable so it will be around for a while. With Swivel now a distant memory (and a spam-laden “search” page), this is a clear issue. Many, many bloggers and quite a few journalists have lost a lot of work.
The data policy does not guarantee that Tableau will be around forever (though their current hiring spree does suggest this), but it does remove the uncertainty that led to the WikiLeaks visualization being pulled. Being able to trust a service not to make arbitrary decisions is important, especially in journalism that might go against powerful interests.
A lot of news stories are already based on numbers, and with the increasing availability of more data, visualizing them will become more and more important. Contributing comments to a news story is one thing, but actually being able to trace the story from the original data is much more interesting and informative.
So What About WikiLeaks?
That was also my first question when I first saw the new policy. The answer is quite simple: that data would not be taken down under the new policy. Tableau’s new data policy is a very promising development, and one that might do more for the use of visualization in journalism than many technical innovations have.