Ybb+ closure prompts questions about data rules

When Sean Haufler ’14 made Banned Bluebook, a Chrome extension that replicates the function of the blocked Yale Bluebook Plus website, he wrote on his blog, “I hope I don’t get kicked out of Yale for this.”

But instead of expulsion, Haufler received praise from Yale College Dean Mary Miller, who called Haufler’s innovation “a good quick fix” in a Tuesday interview with the News, and said in an open letter to the Yale community on Monday that the Chrome extension does not violate Yale’s acceptable use policy.

Haufler created Banned Bluebook several days after the administration blocked YBB+ on the grounds that its developers, Harry Yu ’14 and Peter Xu ’14, had violated Yale’s acceptable use policy by scraping data from Yale’s online course catalog and hosting it on their own servers. In both her Monday letter and a previous Friday letter to the Yale community, Miller said the administration objected to the way YBB+ decoupled numerical course ratings from students’ written evaluations. Miller said YBB+ went against the spirit of the administration’s agreement with the faculty, forged in 2003, to make course evaluation data available to students on the condition that it be presented holistically.

But Haufler set out to demonstrate that, if Yale makes data visible to students, the University “does not have the right to specify exactly how students must view the data.” Though the University can prevent students from scraping the data via its acceptable use policy, Haufler said Yale cannot stop students from using mechanisms like Chrome extensions that leave the data on Yale’s servers while they use it.

Though Dean of Strategic Communications Paul McKinley said the University does not support the way Banned Bluebook presents course evaluations, Miller acknowledged in her Monday letter that the University cannot act against Haufler’s extension under Yale’s current acceptable use policies.

“The difference is the means by which they do it,” Dean of Strategic Communications Paul McKinley said of YBB+ and Banned Bluebook. “[YBB+] was using information it had scraped, while the Chrome extension leaves all the information at its source; it only manipulates the information.”

According to the administration, YBB+ violated section 1607.1 C.5.e of Yale’s acceptable use policy, which prohibits “unauthorized modification or removal of data or equipment.”

Pointing to the same clause, the administration asked Geoffrey Litt ’14, the creator of Class Roulette — another website which uses course data — to shut down his site by Jan. 16.

“I think they just generally disapprove of people using Yale data,” Litt said.

Unlike YBB+, Class Roulette did not present course evaluations, but did use class titles and times that are publicly available on Yale’s Online Course Information website. Litt said the administration also made a legal objection to the website’s use of Yale’s name.

Still, Litt said Class Roulette was not in violation of the acceptable use policy because it neither modified nor removed data from Yale’s servers, but only “copied” it.

A campus-wide debate over Yale’s attitudes toward data sharing has snowballed out of the original YBB+ controversy.

Last Friday, Litt organized an informal meeting of the computer science community to discuss the larger issues at stake in the University’s recent shutdown of YBB+ and Class Roulette. At the meeting, some dozen students wrote a petition asking the University to draft a clearer data use policy.

To Litt, the current controversy has damaged Yale’s reputation in computer science.

“Just to reverse the Reddit attention this has gotten is going to take some proactive PR on Yale’s part,” Litt said, referring to the popular website where a story about the YBB+ controversy received almost 4,200 “upvotes.”

According to Miller’s Monday letter, the Teaching, Learning and Advising Committee has been tasked with examining instructor evaluations in light of the fact that technology has enabled students to take evaluation data into their own hands.

Walter Jetz, who chairs the committee, said the YBB+ debate has highlighted the demand for more sophisticated tools for sifting through course data.

“The challenge now will be to balance students’ interests with those of the faculty and identify a solution that supports Yale’s larger educational mission,” he said.

Xu said on Tuesday that he and Yu plan to approach the committee and ask them to submit a proposal to the faculty for an open access policy such as those present at Stanford, MIT and the University of California, Berkeley. According to Xu, such a policy would allow student developers to use Yale’s data without experiencing the administrative hiccups he and Yu had.

When asked how she envisioned the controversy resolving, Miller said the University has to reckon with the fact that technology is constantly evolving.

“The point is not to slam the door, and say, ‘Conversation over,’” Miller said. “There is no endgame … I think we want to say there’s an open game.”

YBB+ was blocked on Jan. 13.

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