Custom Database Question
January 24, 2012 6:29 AM   Subscribe

Idiots need help creating a basic database.

A small group of (relative) computer illiterates want to create a database for our group at work. We work in government and this would not be a priority project for anyone outside of our group, so having it done professionally in-house would likely take a Herculean effort of paperwork and patience. Similarly, getting funding and, more importantly, getting funding out the door for an outside contractor isn't happening.

How difficult and time-consuming would it be for one of us to put together a database as described below? If manageable, is this an Access-type project or something else? Alternatively, how hard would we be leaning on an acquintance who may or may not have these sorts of skills if we asked them to do this for us? Option three, how much would it likely cost us out of pocket if we decided to fund something like this ourselves and have it done professionally?

The Goal: having a data-entry interface that looks exactly like a paper data summary sheet we already use (created and saved in publisher, if that matters) that will transfer data into an excel-like spreadsheet. We've tried entering direct into excel, but it's way too burdensome because we have approximately 150 variables, but only 40-50 of which are used for any particular case. Of these variables, 10-20 would be categorical and would benefit from a drop-down selection, but beyond that they would be nominal or numerical.

Thanks in advance.
posted by jimmysmits to Computers & Internet (13 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
You can do this in Access, but it might take a while to get up in running. This would be super easy in FileMaker Pro. I believe both can be exported to excel.
posted by jander03 at 6:39 AM on January 24, 2012

FileMaker Pro is probably what you want. It's really easy to work with, and isn't too intimidating for people who aren't very computer literate, but know enough about spreadsheets to feel comfortable navigating through them. Plus, the learning time is much, much shorter than Access, and it isn't terribly expensive.
posted by xingcat at 6:50 AM on January 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

Google forms could be an option here.
posted by toomuchpete at 6:52 AM on January 24, 2012 [4 favorites]

You could easily do this in either Access or Filemaker.

Some places to start:

Filemaker has a decent tutorial here (see lessons 4 and 5 for your needs).

MS Access tutorial here (I'm guessing you use Access 2007, but you can find similar info for 2003 or 2010 elsewhere on MS's info-packed but confusingly organized website).
posted by Wretch729 at 7:21 AM on January 24, 2012

This is certainly do-able in Access, which has a Forms creator section that is pretty versatile. Just know that in Access you can use relational database techniques, which differ from flatfile applications like Excel.

There is a book, the Access Bible, which is pretty good, and walks you through the creation of a database for a veterinary practice. It goes through issues of design, table relations, form creation (including drop down and free text fields), and reporting. If one of your team is interested in learning Access skills, the project you're talking about is quite do-able.
posted by jasper411 at 7:25 AM on January 24, 2012

A Google Docs spreadsheet and forms (which are just a limited front-end to the spreadsheet) are fine if you've just got a flat-file database.

Another option if you need a relational database is something like Zoho Creator. My wife is using this in her job. The form-entry interface is not something you can design to look like a printed form, AFAICT, but can be made fairly idiot-proof. The pro and con here is that it's a hosted online service rather than living on a computer that you control. Which means anyone can access it through a web browser anywhere, but puts you at the mercy of another company. There are a few other hosted services like this out there as well; I have no acquaintance with them though.
posted by adamrice at 8:18 AM on January 24, 2012

nthing Filemaker Pro. That's how I got started with databases 20 years ago. You might also look into Bento, which seems to be a lite version of FMP.
posted by Mad_Carew at 8:24 AM on January 24, 2012

Not to distract you from your desire to create a database--that's definitely the right approach--but you know that in Excel 2007 when you are entering a value into a cell, you can hit ALT and Down to get a look up list of all the values already in that column for selection. So that effectively gives you a look up list for cells that you don't need to maintain explicitly.
posted by NailsTheCat at 10:07 AM on January 24, 2012

My first thought was definitely Access - but my second thought was that it could also be done very easily in PHP and SQL, using something like XAMPP to function as an in-house "web" server. I mention this only because the PHP/SQL skill set seems to be available more easily and cheaply than a lot of other programming skills - in other words, someone in your team might well have a friend or relative who dabbles in web development and would be willing to set something up for a few bucks on the side. (I'm assuming that this will never be accessible from the web - there are a whole lot of security "gotchas" that new programmers can miss.)

I would definitely NOT recommend trying to acquire that skill set specifically for this project - if you're already working in a Microsoft Office environment, Access is the most logical choice - but it might be a potential solution for you or someone else that wouldn't ordinarily be considered.
posted by mie at 11:32 AM on January 24, 2012

For what it's worth - you should be running this idea past your own IT department. That's going to dictate what tools you have to choose from.
posted by machinecraig at 1:19 PM on January 24, 2012

But the end result is just the spreadsheet? If so, the whole thing can be done in Excel itself by creating a data entry form.

I am not seeing what needs to be a database here.
posted by caclwmr4 at 3:18 PM on January 24, 2012

I'm with caclwmr4. It sounds like you want a form in Excel with a few dropdowns, and maybe some validations.
posted by pompomtom at 3:57 PM on January 24, 2012

Concerning the form to enter the data: It seems natural to want a data-entry form that looks exactly like your paper form, but that's only because you're already familiar with the paper form. You will make the project much easier to build and be happier with the result if you drop this requirement. It's better to begin afresh and design the data-input form for work flow, ease of use and speed of data input. (Been there, done that.)
posted by exphysicist345 at 4:51 PM on January 24, 2012

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