airtable

In my quest for cool, practical, digital tools, I came across a mention of Airtable on Twitter last February. The link came at a great time, right as I was wrestling with membership, contact information, and dues payment data for The Council of Virginia Archaeologists (I currently serve as Secretary). Airtable is essentially a hosted relational database that looks like a spreadsheet.

While I could handle setting up a relational database in another format, I needed something that would allow for collaboration by Executive Board members in different places. It needed to be easy to use for those who weren’t “database people.” And it needed to be easy to transfer ownership of the information to the next secretary once my term is over.

After playing with Airtable for a little while, it seemed like a great fit. It did take some experimentation to figure out how to set up the relationships that I needed, but once I figured out how to adjust filters instead of the queries I’m used to, it was all very easy.

Membership data information spreadsheet.

Process

I imported my old Google sheets spreadsheet and began the process of changing field types to multi select pick lists, formatted dates, etc. All super easy. I then created new sheets for dues payment and attendance information that I easily connected to members. One of the elements that stumped me for a bit was figuring out how to essentially query across tables, but the solution here is in the “rollup” field type. I defined a new column as Rollup and then calculated the maximum value of Dues Paid Date in order to see which members still need to pay up in 2016 (guilty over here…). That was a little different that putting that function in a SQL query, but after I found the button I was good to go.

The rollup function on screen.

I shared the whole database with our treasurer, but I also created a simple data entry form for him to record future payments. I love that there is no login required to enter data through forms or to view data through the share links. I wouldn’t put any super-sensitive information in this application, but for what I need, this level of ease-of-use is wonderful.

Form to track dues payment information

More features

The coolest feature that I’m not even using for this particular project is the included API. For an individual or organization who wants to display database content on the web without a lot of technical expertise, this application could be very useful. Here’s a great example of how someone might use the API to display a gallery of images and descriptions on the web.

There are also a bunch of integrations with Zapier to connect Airtable with email, Google Docs, Trello, social media, you name it. The only automation I need to conquer in the future is how to sync up my exact dataset to a Google sheet or, better yet, a Google contacts group, without simply adding new records (i.e.reflecting ALL changes in Airtable, not just additions). I’m sure it can be done, but it’s not an out-of-the box function. For today I’ll stick with copy/paste BCC emails, but I do want to improve that process.

There is a pricing scheme, but the free version already exceeds my needs for this project. I know this application is new, so hopefully the pricing scheme stays put for a while. But like I mentioned before, If ever I wanted to get all my data out, I could export to a CSV with a couple clicks. So the risk is very low.

Drawbacks

Control: Airtable is a commercial enterprise. Your data is hosted on their servers. While there’s nothing nefarious apparent in their Terms of Service, you know the drill. Connecting with Zapier integrations only compounds these concerns, so be careful about anything that needs to be truly secure.

Documentation: While I found a ton of information, it was hard to get to through the Airtable support pages themselves. Most of the pages linked directly were so basic that I had to do an external search for more advanced troubleshooting. This is but a small quibble.

I wasn’t able to download the Android app beta, so I’ll contact the developers, because I’d like to see what it can do. As far as I know, the iOS app is fully functional and another big feature.

Overall, this application is really powerful. I’m definitely hoping it will become a part of our COVA workflow and I will also add it to my growing list of free/affordable tools for heritage institutions.

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