When you’re looking for reliable information—especially guidance—pay close attention to the sources. Experience has taught me to approach information with a skeptical eye and to always identify and scrutinize the source. This has become especially important since the advent of the Internet. The anonymity of the Web makes it easy for people to claim expertise or to feign objectivity that is lacking. Organizations often publish information that is tailored to serve their own interests, and their interests are often not ours. When you know the source and are aware of its motives and biases, you can take them into account. When sources are concealed, however, especially when they create the impression of independence and objectivity, you may trust them in error.
Did you know that several sources of information about business intelligence that appear independent and objective have hidden interests and affiliations? In most cases the objectivity of so-called independent organizations is compromised by the fact that they are funded through advertising and sponsorships from the very vendors that they are supposed to objectively evaluate. Sometimes, however, affiliations are more intentionally masked. For example, if you have an interest in dashboard design, you might have visited the website Dashboard Insight in search of advice and examples. Even if you didn’t expect the site to provide great expertise, you certainly expected it to be objective. Although many software vendors advertise on Dashboard Insight and the articles, papers, and examples that you’ll find there come from various sources (mostly vendors), if you tally the site’s content per vendor, I believe you’ll find that one in particular is more visible than you would expect based on its share of the market: Dundas Software. This isn’t an accident. Dashboard Insight is owned by Dundas Software. Unless you visit the site’s Privacy Statement page where this affiliation is mentioned, you would never know this.
I’ve visited Dashboard Insight myself many times over the years in search of dashboard examples. Until fairly recently, I did so without knowledge of Dundas’ involvement.
My first direct interaction with someone at Dashboard Insight occurred in 2010. On January 13 I received this introductory email from Steve Bogdon:
Good afternoon Stephen,
As you know, Dashboard Insight is a key resource for decision makers in the BI and data visualization industry. We feature innovative articles, expert interviews, the latest news and much more – from all over the world. There’s always room for a variety of views on any subject.
In February, Dashboard Insight will be taking a close look at “trends in BI and data visualization.” As a highly regarded dashboard expert, I believe an article written by you commenting on recent data visualization trends (as well as where you think the industry is heading over the next year) would be an excellent addition to our venerable article library.
Would you be interested in writing this article for our readers?
By the way, when I started in this industry, almost 4 years ago, the first book I came across was “Information Dashboard Design” written by yourself. This book was an excellent tool and provided a strong foundation for the next few years of continued learning. Thank you.
I appreciate the invitation to contribute to Dashboard Insight. Unfortunately, I won’t be able to write anything for February, because I’m booked solid for the next few months. My schedule tends to fill up well in advance.
I’m curious about what you’re doing. I’m aware of your site, of course, but haven’t examined what you do closely. Are you making an effort to improve dashboard technology and its use or merely to serve as a forum for dashboard related content and a venue for dashboard vendor advertising without making judgments about effectiveness? I ask, because I believe that sites such as yours have an opportunity, and even a responsibility, to nudge readers toward effective practices. This conflicts, however, with a model that accepts advertising from any vendor that’s willing to pay and accepts content regardless of merit. In the past, I’ve ceased working with so-called independent, vendor-agnostic BI publications and conferences because they were in fact influenced by advertisers to favor their products and to censor criticism of them. I hope you’re in a position to exercise leadership by selecting good content that doesn’t just seek to promote vendor interests and to turn away advertising from vendors whose products are ineffective. I think your readers would appreciate objective guidance that looks out for their interests.
(Note: In the interest of full disclosure, before Dashboard Insight originally launched its website I received an email from a colleague who mentioned it, including the fact that it was affiliated with Dundas Software. Much later, when I ran across the site on my own, my aging brain had lost track of this little fact and nothing that I found on the website reminded me.)
Bogdon’s reply contained the following information about Dashboard Insight:
As for what we are trying to do … we pride ourselves on being a completely free dashboard/BI resource destination for the community. Almost all of our articles are vendor neutral and are donated by people like yourself, the experts in this space. The dashboard examples shown on our site are generally not vendor neutral but are still a great resource for the community to get dashboard-development ideas. We encourage comments at the bottom of every article and dashboard page – this allows our audience to ask questions or perhaps make suggestions to the author. Dashboard Insight is visited regularly by students at business schools including Harvard, St. George and Pepperdine (I know one professor at Pepperdine talks about us in class and encourages his students to visit our site).
One project currently in the works that may be of interest to you is our new “getting started” section. We are launching a special menu system with the needs of the “beginner” user in mind. The goal of this project is to guide someone who may not even know what a dashboard is directly to the information they need. There will be no excessively technical articles found there, just basic getting started-type articles. For example, we will have sections like: “I have mountains of data, what should the next step be?” and “Will a dashboard help me?” A user can select one of these sections and a list of relevant vendor-neutral articles will then be available. This will be a very user-friendly interface. We are currently gathering a list of getting started topics and articles, perhaps you have some suggestions?
We generate our revenue by website advertising via banner ads and our business intelligence directory. This is a level playing field, as all advertisements are weighed equally and no special treatment has been offered to the vendors advertising with us. We even have a section in our directory for anyone in this space to list their company free of charge. All advertisements (both free and paid) are checked by myself to make sure they truly belong on Dashboard Insight. We have turned away many potential advertisers who did not fit in accordingly.
“Level playing field”? “No special treatment”? This email was a perfect opportunity for the Bogdon to reveal Dashboard Insight’s affiliation with Dundas. It should have been obvious that this affiliation would concern me.
Later that year, still not aware of the affiliation, when Bogdon asked if he could republish one of my articles on Dashboard Insight, I responded as follows:
I’m sorry to disappoint you—I really am—but I just can’t have my work featured alongside stuff like this:
He was unhappy with my stand.
Steve I really do not understand your concern with this. Almost all of our content is vendor neutral and published as a resource (learning tools) for this community. The example you have given below is not vendor neutral, no dashboard is as someone created it and expects credit for it. It does however give an example of a dashboard that our readers can learn from. Between you and me this would likely be one for the “what not to do category” but it is still an example. We use these as examples to draw our audience into the site from the search engines. Between these examples and the small amount of advertising (less than 30k per year) that funds this publication we are able to bring the remaining 90% of the articles that are vendor neutral to our audience. Like any business we need to keep the lights on. It is a little confusing that someone like you who lists himself as a leading expert in data visualization that helps organizations learn about this technology is unable to see good in the service we are providing to this community. Being so respected in this community has driven my audience to request your expertise and views on issues from time to time, it would have been nice to bring this to them.
You’re reading something into my response that wasn’t intended. I did not say that you’re not providing a useful service. I said that I don’t want my work to be exhibited alongside examples of bad practices. To do otherwise would compromise the integrity of my work and cause confusion. People out there who rely on us for help deserve better. There’s enough confusion out there already.
About six months later I was contacted by Dashboard Insight again, this time by its new leader, Alexander (Sandy) Chiang.
There have been recent changes at Dashboard Insight and I thought this is an appropriate time to reconnect with you. I have been brought on as Research Director at DI and one of my mandates is to up the quality of the content. To accomplish this, I need to start being more critical in choosing the dashboards we feature. Going forward, the articles we post must be aligned with actual dashboard design and data visualization best practices. However, I still have to fulfill the rest of DI’s obligations on posting dashboards and articles for the month of June. After that, it’s a new Dashboard Insight.
I cannot remove content, but what I am going to do is make better content more visible. Suffice to say, there’s a lot that needs to be done and I think a great way to start this new direction is an interview with you. I think this interview will help you get your message to our audience and DI would benefit from information.
If you’re interested, I can send you a list of questions. You can take your time in responding, and once that’s done, we can post it on DI. I look forward to hearing from you.
I was encouraged by Sandy’s plans and agreed to do the interview, which was eventually published on the site. Just before publication, Sandy wrote the following:
Out of courtesy, I wanted to let you know that I will be reaching out to two vendors who you have felt in the past has done a good job at adhering to dashboard and data visualization best practices: TIBCO Spotfire and Tableau. I am NOT saying you are endorsing any of their products in this interview (as you don’t) nor have you suggested asking them for paid promotional activities. In addition, I do not plan on putting their ads anywhere in the actual interview text itself so it doesn’t take away from the intent of the interview. However, I will be pitching the idea of having their banner ads in the usual spots (top of the site and on the right side).
Even though Tableau and Spotfire are two of the relatively few vendors with data visualization products that I like, I discouraged sponsorship.
I would prefer it if no ads were visible in conjunction with the interview. If you can do this, I’d appreciate it.
You’re in a difficult position. By funding your site through vendor advertising, you open yourself to vendor influence. Even if you manage to resist this entirely, this possibility of vendor influence will always undermine the credibility of your site as long as you accept advertising from the very vendors whose work you are supposed to objectively critique. One of the reasons that I rarely write for websites other than my own is because I do not want advertising associated with my work.
Sandy wasn’t able to honor my request. Late in 2011, after he and I had a chance to meet when he attended my public workshop in San Francisco, Sandy asked if I would write an article for Dashboard Insight. Still wanting to support his efforts to improve the site, I initially agreed, but when Sandy raised the issue of vendor sponsorship again, I had second thoughts.
This matter of vendor sponsorship has prompted me to take a fresh look at your website, which has renewed old concerns of mine. Despite your good intentions, your site is still aligned with vendors to an uncomfortable degree. The home page alone made me cringe, with the Dundas ad featured so clearly at the top with its moving bubbles, which is an eyesore that conflicts with the principles of non-distraction that I teach. As I looked further, I found that most of your educational content was written by vendors and is designed to promote their products more than to teach useful principles and practices. Your site would be so much more useful to people if it were free of vendor content.
One of the reasons that I stopped writing for the B-Eye-Network several years ago was the fact that bad products were being promoted alongside my articles, which I couldn’t tolerate because it contributed to the confusion that was already rampant among people who were trying to implement dashboards and other forms of data visualization. I should have thought this through more carefully when you asked me to write a white paper for your site. Had you mentioned sponsorship when we first spoke about this, I would have never considered doing it. Now that this issue has been raised, I find myself in the uncomfortable position of needing to back away from our agreement. I’m sorry to disappoint you, but this decision feels right, given the circumstances. As long as your business model requires you to feature advertising and other content from the vendors, you cannot serve as an objective resource for your readers.
Sorry, my friend. I know that you want to do good work. Until you can find a way to distance yourself from the vendors whose products exhibit most of the ineffective dashboard practices that people struggle with, however, the usefulness of your work will be compromised.
A particular sentence in Sandy’s subsequent response caught my attention: “I do wish I could get away from vendor support but that’s the business model the powers that be have decided.” I wrote him back to ask: “Who are the ‘powers that be’? I assumed that you owned and ran Dashboard Insight independently.” When Sandy responded to my question is when I learned that Dashboard Insight was owned by Dundas Software and that he answered to them.
You can imagine my dismay and disappointment. I responded by encouraging Sandy to make this affiliation obvious on the website. He proposed this to Dundas’ management and afterwards told me that they would eventually follow my advice and make the affiliation known. That was in November of 2011. We corresponded about this several times since, and I could tell that Sandy was doing what he could. Here’s an excerpt from the last email that I received from Sandy earlier this month on March 8, 2012:
I will be leaving Dashboard Insight and tomorrow will be my final day. In the past, we spoke about your concern regarding Dashboard Insight’s non-disclosure of its affiliation with Dundas.
With that being said, Adam (who is CCed on this email) will be running Dashboard Insight going forward. He will address any PR related issues.
I’ll let Adam take over from here.
I haven’t heard from Adam. Perhaps, now that the cat is out of the bag, Dashboard Insight will itself clearly disclose on its website what I have revealed here. If so, visitors to the site who come in need of information will know the source and be able take its interests into account.