Monday, April 02, 2012

The world is flat? Only for US students

Learning and teaching has become a global endeavor with lots of online resources and technologies. Contests are an effective way to engage a diverse community from around the world. In the past I have written several posts about contests and competitions in data mining, statistics and more. And now about a new one.

Tableau is a US-based company that sells a cool data visualization tool (there's a free version too). The company has recently seen huge growth with lots of new adopters in industry and academia. Their "Tableau for teaching" (TfT) program is intended to assist instructors and teachers by providing software and resources for data visualization courses. The program is promoted as global "Tableau for Teaching Around the World" (see the interactive dashboard at the bottom of this post). As part of this program, a student contest was recently launched where students are provided with real data and are challenged to produce good visualizations that tell compelling stories. The data are from Lesotho, Africa (given by the NGO CARE) and the prizes are handsome. I was almost getting excited about this contest (non-US data, visualization, nice prizes for students) when I read the draconian contest eligibility rules:
ELIGIBILITY: The Tableau Student Data Challenge Contest (“The Awards,” “Contest” or “Promotion”) is offered and open only to legal residents of the 50 United States and the District of Columbia (“United States”) who at time of entry (a) are the legal age of majority in their state of residence; (b) physically reside in the United States; (c) are enrolled as a college or university accredited in the United States; and (d) are not an Ineligible Person
I was deeply disappointed. Not only does the contest exclude non-US students (even branches of US universities outside of the US are excluded!), but more disturbing is the fact that only US residents can win a prize for telling a story about lives of people in Lesotho. Condescending? Wouldn't local Lesotho students (or at least students in the region) be the most knowledgeable about the meaning of the data? Wouldn't they be the ones most qualified to tell the story of Lesotho people that emerges from the data? Wouldn't they be the first to identify surprising patterns or exceptions and even wrong data?

While one country "telling the story" of another country is common at the political level, there is no reason that open-minded private visualization software companies should endorse the same behavior. If the problem of awarding cash prizes to non-US citizens is tax-related, I am sure there are creative ways, such as giving free software licenses, to offer prizes that can be distributed to any enthusiastic and talented student of visualization around the world. In short, I call Tableau to change the rules and follow CARE's motto "Defending Dignity".

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