A recipe for the perfect database (AKA how not to get undercooked data)

I was out and about in Wales last week training an organisation to use their new database. It got me thinking about what the elements of success might be for a project like that?

Over the last 6 years of working with voluntary organisations I’ve never seen anything give more pain – or more joy, well, that might be pushing it – than an organisation’s database.

It’s a tool that can be feared, hated and eventually ignored if things go bad, written off as an expensive mistake, but it doesn’t – and shouldn’t – have to be that way. In fact I’d go as far as saying that a well planned and managed database could be the best thing for your organisation. It will save time because everything is recorded in the same way and in the same place, it will make management easier because you’ll be able to see at the click of a button what is happening and it will be easier to raise funds because you can give reports to potential funders on the impact your work is having.

So what does it take for a database to work well?

Well, before you even see your database you should be spending time as an organisation talking about your data. What do you know about it? What’s your attitude to it? What do you need from it? This can be a time consuming process but once it’s done, it’s done and you are more likely to have something at the end that really works for you.

Ideally this kind of conversation will happen before you even choose a new database – so that it can inform your decision making – but it’s difficult to know that it’s something that needs to be done. One of those unknown unknowns.

What are the sorts of discussions you should be having before choosing or using your system?

The principles of data:

  • Do you understand your responsibilities as an organisation holding personal data?
  • Do the people you work with know – and give permission – for you to hold that data?
  • Do you have processes in place to ensure the privacy of your data?

The data you’re collecting:

  • How are you already collecting data?
  • On paper forms?
  • Over the phone?
  • At face to face meetings?
  • On who? Service users? Organisations? People? Funders? Volunteers?

What do you need to collect?

  • What sorts of things do you need to know to do your job? Attendance lists for events? Case notes for clients? Treatment history?
  • What information do you need to know for organisational management? Staff timesheets? Number of people reached? Numbers of sessions delivered?
  • What information do you need to give to your board/ funders etc?
  • What form does your information need to take? Demographic, numbers of attendees, age breakdown, average, median?
  • What might you need to collect in the future? Are you hoping to get a quality standard in which case you might need to collect a specific piece of information. Are requirements from your funder likely to change?

Only by knowing these things can you be sure – or at least more confident – that the system you are using meets your needs, and then, when you get to the training it’s all about how to use it in the best way possible, rather than seeing how it’s not going to work for you.

[I should add a disclaimer that I work with Lamplight Database Systems to train organisations on their Lamplight System. Even if I didn't work with them I'd still be suggesting you talk to them about your requirements. They are passionate about an effective voluntary sector and their part in achieving that is in supporting organisations' data management. They are also really nice people.]

You can find out more about Lamplight at www.lamplightdb.co.uk.

There are also some really helpful online resources on databases at: ww.ictknowledgebase.org.uk/databases

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2 thoughts on “A recipe for the perfect database (AKA how not to get undercooked data)

  1. Pingback: Happy 5th birthday blog! | Louise Brown

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