In my day job, I work on two, large-scale education initiatives at the Oregon Community Foundation. The Studio to School initiative focuses on arts education and the K12 Student Success Out-of-School Time initiative funds after-school and summer programs. For each initiative we collect data at the organization level (e.g. how their programs are structured) as well as the individual level (e.g. interviews with specific staff members). Right now, the data that we collect lives in a series of Excel spreadsheets and Word documents scattered in various places throughout our internal network drive. I constantly bang my head on the desk trying to find specific pieces of data in our unorganized, unconnected mess of a data management “system.” Because my office runs on Windows, using the notoriously terrible search feature is futile. And because we use an internal network drive (i.e. not Dropbox, Google Drive, or the like) I am constantly informed that I can’t open a file because someone else has it open.
From talking with other researchers, I know that my organization is not the only to struggle with data management. The series of unconnected, poorly organized, and non-searchable spreadsheets strategy is, in fact, quite common among researchers working in teams.
So what’s the solution?
Ask some technologically-inclined people and they will tell you the answer is simple: a relational database. Microsoft Access is the most well-known of these databases in the research world (from what I’ve gathered, but please correct me if you think otherwise), but it is, let’s say, less than 100% user friendly. Databases can be useful, but often have a fairly steep learning curve. The promise of having all of your data in one place, connected, searchable, and able to be worked on by multiple people simultaneously remains a challenge unless you want to invest some serious time and energy into learning how to create and manage a database.
Fortunately, companies are recognizing the challenge of disconnected data and coming up with simple and elegant solutions.
One option that we are currently testing in my job is called Fieldbook. The product’s slogan is “create a database, as easily as a spreadsheet,” and it does exactly what it says on the tin. With the look and feel of a spreadsheet, it is incredibly easy to navigate. Here, for example, is a peek at one of the sheets we use to keep general information on our grantees. Looks just like a spreadsheet, right?
But this is far more powerful than a simple spreadsheet. The power of Fieldbook comes in the ability to link sheets, as the company’s video demonstrates.
So, in the case of our initiative, I can click on any of the grantees in “Project Eval Plans” column on the sheet above and that takes me to another sheet where I can enter information about their project evaluation plans (obviously, this sheet is blank, but you get the idea!). No longer am I looking through folders trying to find their project evaluation plan document; now I simply click on that cell and immediately I am taken where I need to go.
Fieldbook has many other useful features. Like Google Apps, it allows you to collaborate with others, enabling you to edit simultaneously. And it allows you to create and save filtered and sorted views of our data, allowing us to, for example, easily see which grantees mentioned the words “musical instrument” in their project evaluation plans. The example video from Fieldbook highlights this feature.
While we are only testing out Fieldbook at the moment, its power is already abundantly clear. Were we to switch to using it more robustly, the problems of our current system — not being able to find data in our disconnected mess of files, not being able to search for data, and not being able to work simultaneously with others — would be reduced significantly.
If your organization is using a system like ours and you have nightmares of yourself searching through layers of folders, looking for the most recent version of spreadsheets, check out Fieldbook. It is a new product, one benefit of which is that it is currently free (though there is a paid version with additional features).
Have you used Fieldbook or anything similar to manage your data? What’s working (or not working) for you? Leave a comment to let us know!