Beyond Visual Design: Stability and Security Considerations for an Institution’s Public-facing Dashboards – Part 1
The expectations for an institution’s public-facing dashboards have ratchetted up through the pandemic. Notably, publicly accessible COVID-19 dashboard design became a distinct art form in higher education, complete with aficionados and critics (see the Inside Higher Ed article on the “We Rate COVID Dashboards” site). Simultaneously, the skills required to produce exemplar dashboards elevated and remain in high demand across the sector.
However, all of the artistry invested in a public-facing dashboard is in vain if it takes more than 5-10 seconds to load, accidentally exposes private information, or brings down other Tableau visualizations in an institution’s environment (Bausili, p.12). Hiring the finest portrait artist means little if the easel she paints on continually collapses or her framed work crashes off the gallery wall.
Beyond visual design, data security and stability architectural considerations must underpin public-facing dashboards for an institution, especially if a visual will be heavily viewed and operationally relied upon. Amidst the rush to produce attention grabbing output, or keep up with its peers, it can be tempting for an institution to assume a new public-facing dashboard can be treated as others from their pre-pandemic past. This post looks at why this may not be the case, and when to think twice about go-to options. In particular, I’ll discuss a popular starting point for public-facing dashboards, the appropriately named “Tableau Public” product, and some of the signs that an institution may have outgrown this option.
Setting the Stage: Public-facing COVID-19 Dashboards are new to Higher Ed, but Public-facing Vizzes are not
The use of Tableau’s technology to publicly display institutional information is nothing new. For years, educational institutions across the world have used Tableau to communicate institutional facts to public audiences. Examples include institutional research reports, strategic plan updates, and graduate employment outcomes. My colleague, Coleman Wagoner, consolidated and categorized dozens of living examples from North America into a dashboard here.
The Shifting Foundation of Public-Facing Dashboards in Higher Ed
Until recently, many — perhaps even all — of an institution’s public-facing dashboards were built on datasets with low data change velocity. The visuals built on top drew relatively low levels of traffic and concurrency by end-viewers (concurrency referring to the sum of unique users simultaneously interacting with a published dashboard).
A good example of a low change velocity dataset and accompanying visual is the once-per-year “official” or “census” update of enrollment figures underpinning an institutional factbook. The factbook may be regularly used, but in a steady trickle rather than a tidal wave of users.
Consequently, while robust software and architectural support for external-facing dashboards has been available from the Tableau Platform for years (see this Tableau Server Core-based licensing section), the option was categorized as “nice-to-have” rather than “mission-critical” in budget planning for many institutions not willing or ready to evolve their analytics culture. Was the “pretty visual” casually viewed a few hundred times per year really worth a high price tag? Wasn’t the annually updated static image of an enrollment bar and line chart “good enough”? If a visual took more than 30 seconds to load for a few users, how much time or resource was truly being wasted? Investments in public-facing dashboard design, not to mention the less tangible factors of data security and stability, could quickly be dismissed.
In 2022, this mindset appears increasingly antiquated. It certainly does not scale for a twice-daily COVID-19 case count report pulling data from half-a-dozen systems being viewed by thousands of people per day. Furthermore, as leaders and stakeholders of institutions were exposed to modern analytics tools and functionality used in COVID-19 public-facing dashboards — real-time updating, richly explorable metrics, consistent uptime, snappy performance — a new standard was set. Community members and the public-at-large also raised their expectations for transparency, modernity, and sophistication for all of an institution’s public-facing dashboards.
COVID-19 showed what was possible with modern visual analytics. But of course, what is possible and what is budgeted for is not always in lockstep. Unfortunately, these are the conditions where shortcuts or temporary fixes begin creeping in, along with their long-term consequences.
Tableau Public: The Minimum Viable Solution for External-Facing Dashboards
Even prior to the pandemic, before design expectations were raised, a lack of budget did not mean the desire for rich, interactive visuals was absent among an institution’s stakeholders. Particularly when an institution witnessed its peers innovating on the data visualization front, the fear of losing ground in modern analytics sophistication and brand deterioration built urgency to do something to keep up. The well-known, “Did you see what x institution is doing? Why don’t we have that?”-syndrome of higher ed.
Savvy schools looking to save on software licensing costs while providing interactive functionality might look to Tableau Public as a budget-friendly solution. This choice could — and still can — make logical sense in certain situations, or as we say ad nauseum in tech, “use-cases” . But, it comes with trade-offs. Tableau Public was never intended to be a universal solution for all of an institution’s public-facing dashboards. Now that we’ve entered the pandemic-era of visual analytics expectations, it is obvious that Tableau Public has simply been outgrown for the needs of many institutions.
How Tableau Public is used as part of an institution’s Tableau deployment
If you’re curious about how cost-conscious institutions use Tableau Public to get their public-facing use-case needs off-the-ground, let’s take a bit of a detour to examine the approach.
The figures below are drawn from my previous post discussing Tableau Deployment models in higher education. The two models illustrate how a department or division might employ Tableau Public as part of their Tableau platform footprint to save on costs.
In figures 3 and 4, Tableau Public is featured on the right side of the diagrams, outside the institution’s network for licensed users. Notably, Tableau Public has no direct connection to the Tableau Server/Online rectangle in the middle, which is the central heart and hub of every enterprise Tableau Platform deployment.
In the operational flow of both models, a Tableau Desktop Creator or “developer” is responsible for creating, publishing, and updating content to individual, no-cost license Tableau Public profile (or profiles). This process is independent of an institution’s centrally managed and governed Tableau Server/Online environment (assuming one exists). With only a handful of data updates needed per year, using Tableau Public in this way might be a minimum viable solution for an institution with a limited number of slowly changing public factbook pages, for example.
Aside from the software license savings, an advantage heralded by proponents of Tableau Public is that the only hardware/computing resources required for a public-facing solution is a machine with Tableau Desktop installed and an internet connection. In other words, the institution has no external-facing server instance to centrally govern and maintain as this is handled by Tableau Public’s servers.
So, what’s the catch with Tableau Public for an Institution? When has it become outgrown?
At the risk of being tongue in cheek, the flip side is that the institution has no external-facing server to centrally govern and maintain, including its underlying dashboards, datasets, and permission rules. Over time, as the number of Tableau Public users and use-cases grows, so does the complexity of content and data management. Two Tableau Public profiles may quickly turns into four, then eight, and so on as campus users become enthusiastic about publicly sharing their work and insights
While this may be great for the dream of data democratization it is enthusiasm rarely shared by a central IT or communications office seeking consistency and data governance for critical information:
- What if an employee leaves and takes their Tableau Public username and profile with them?
- How will two dashboards on two Tableau Public profiles displaying same information with different values be fixed? Who is right?
- What if internally facing information is accidentally published with full visibility to all on the internet?
- How will updates to data be ensured regularly occur?
It should also be noted that publishing a dashboard to Tableau Public generates an extracted copy of underlying data and saved to Tableau’s Public’s servers. For some institutions this is a non-starter by the terms of their data governance policies.
And, while Tableau Public has a strong track-record of uptime, its availability is not guaranteed; use of the software is provided on an “as is” basis. Outages of Tableau Public may occur and support for the service is not available per the Tableau Public EULA.
These are all costs that must be weighed against the benefits of relying on Tableau Public for an institution’s public-facing content. For an institution just beginning its modern analytics development and in need of a simple, cost-effective method to get off-the-ground, Tableau Public may be just the right first step. Tableau Public may be more of a crutch or even hinderance for an institution further along in its analytics sophistication.
Special considerations before using Tableau Public for an Institution’s COVID-19 dashboard or other “Next-generation” Public-facing visuals
In addition to the previous comments, there are a few pandemic-era concerns that should prompt an extra pause before an institution publishes COVID-19 content to their Tableau Public profile. These concerns are equally applicable the new generation of dashboards an institution may be aiming to produce that incorporate real-time updating of sensitive data, complex connections to datasets, and rapid means of modification.
Some of the differences between an institution’s public-facing COVID-19 dashboard and a traditional, low data-change velocity dashboard in education include:
- Increased velocity of underlying dataset changes – Data may change multiple times per day. What is considered an acceptable update delay? Is a manually procedure of updating cost effective?
- Unprecedented demand for published content – More viewers mean higher stakes. Are the right people equipped with the right knowledge?
- COVID-19 data privacy/sensitivity requirements – What are an institution’s data governance policies? Have HIPAA/FERPA requirements been considered?
- Requirements for tight integration with internal-facing resources and dashboards – A public-facing dashboard is likely only one of many others that are internal facing — will datasets and values match? How much discrepancy is acceptable?
- Deeper Engagement and Performance Metrics Tracking – When are people viewing content, how frequently, and how quickly is a dashboard loading? The simple view count available for a Tableau Public dashboard provides limited insight and no measure of loading time patterns.
Next up on this series of posts, I’ll dive deeper into these items and their implications. I’ll also examine alternative, more scalable solutions for an institution who has outgrown what Tableau Public offers, such as core-based Tableau Server licensing and architecture.
Bausili, Ben & Hughes, Mat. Designing Efficient Production Dashboards (2021). Tableau and Interworks. Retrieved March 31, 2022 from https://www.tableau.com/learn/whitepapers/designing-efficient-workbooks