When Is Building a Form the Wrong Answer? - Inciter
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When Is Building a Form the Wrong Answer?

One of our core values here at Inciter is “Get it Done”. When our clients email us, we email them back. When they have a problem, whether it’s a messy data set or help thinking through their data strategy, we show up. So when a client that is using our data system asked me the other day to build a form for them, my first thought was, “You’ve got it!”. 

I asked them what the form should look like, and thought about how it connected to the rest of their data. Not just the data in our system but all the data they collect and use. This client is part of a collaborative effort that involves many other nonprofit organizations and government agencies. They all have to work together not only to identify and help clients, but also to collect data to report to federal funders. 

he form they requested involved aggregate data (e.g., How many people did you serve last month? How many referrals did you provide for housing?) This raised a red flag for me. If we were just building software, it would have been no problem. You build the form fields, and connect it to the database. But I suspected that this form was a workaround for a data bottleneck. So I called the client and asked them to talk with me about how they would use the form. 

That kind of call is everything. Turns out they needed data from their partners on who they had served, what kind of referrals they gave and a few other things, in order to do county level reporting to their federal funder. They didn’t think the partners would want to log into our system to enter the data, because they already have to use their own data systems, and they didn’t want to deal with another one. 

We build with this in mind. I know my clients deal with double data entry all the time. Our conversation went something like this:

Me: “Are these organizations going to already have this data in their native systems?”

Client: “Yes.”

Me: “How about we just let them output the exact data you need and just upload it to our system?”

Client: “Can you DO that?”

Me: “Of course we can. That’s why we built the system the way we did”. 

Uploading a CSV (think spreadsheet) file is a piece of cake, once you get the formatting right. So we work with clients to figure out exactly what data they need to get from a partner or from one of their other databases, we map it to the data model for them, clarify the formatting and data validation, and give them a template to use. Then we troubleshoot until they can export the data and upload it to our system in just a few minutes. No double data entry or asking people for their numbers in a meeting required. 

Remember, just because you CAN build a form, doesn’t mean you SHOULD. Always keep an eye out for what the REAL need is, and whether you can use data integration to solve it, rather than building a bigger system. 

Have a form you’d like to kick to the curb? Need permission? Drop us a line! We will be your enablers. 

Just a note: Data governance and data sharing is a big piece of this puzzle, not the topic of this blog. We will talk about that some other day!

Taj Carson

Dr. Taj Carson is the CEO and Founder of Inciter. She has more than 20 years’ experience helping nonprofits manage their data. She has a Master’s degree in Information Visualization from the Maryland Institute College of Art, a certificate in technology entrepreneurship from the University of Maryland-Baltimore County, and a Ph.D. in Sociology from the University of Delaware in 2000.

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