Organizing Organizations with Airtable

I’m a math professor at the University of Oregon. Through an unfathonable sequence of events I became the VP of the University Senate. This may sound like a cushy job presiding over the privileged professoriate, but the reality is that much of the job is organizing the work of faculty, staff and students on a bewildering variety of committees. These committees keep the University running, and in so doing produce volumes of documents, motions to consider in the Senate and ultimately legislation and policy.

When I stepped into the role of VP, it quickly became apparent that the system needed a new organizational paradigm. We had committees each with members from a variety of constituencies holding regular meetings, producing files and motions for consideration in the Senate. To handle this firehose of information we have two staff people, and two officers (the President and me). The existing web page had been cobbled together over the years and suffered perennially from being out of date: changes were handled manually. There was no dedicated permanent home for correspondence and files. Information was hard to find and impossible to trust.

As a mathematician, I revel in organization. I like things categorized and labelled and relationships clearly marked. It was clear that the Senate needed a database. And, while I have a certain degree of technical acumen, I am not going to be in this job for long: whatever database solution we settled on would ultimately be maintained by office staff, with data entry done mostly by students. We needed a database with a user-friendly front end for data entry. We needed more than this. We also needed to be able to display data from the database on a new Senate web page. This web page was to be a blog of sorts, where Senators and other constituents could weigh in on the issues of the day. It also needed to provide information to those serving on committees: information about the charge of the committee, members of the committee, associated meetings and files.

After a bit of research we decided on Airtable. Airtable is easy to use. Creating tables and entering data is trivial. This can be done via their interface at airtable.com or via their stand alone application (which is essentially a stand alone version of their web page). Anyone who can use Google Sheets can use Airtable. Airtable provides “Views” onto the data: you can decide what is visible in each view, and share this information with others via read-only links and embeddable HTML snippets. Airtable also accepts HTTP GET requests and returns data in easy-to-use JSON format. Every database (or “base” as they call it) comes with its own custom API, so it is easy to develop code to handle the returned JSON data.

We ultimately decided on custom display of the returned JSON data as opposed to the prebuilt Airtable web-embeddable views — we were working within strict style guidelines handed down by the University. Our pages that display data query particular views of tables in the database. This information is returned in JSON format which is then manipulated in Javascript/jQuery for display.

Information is added or edited by staff and student workers via Airtable’s web-based front end. Airtable also allows us to display pre-built, sharable forms that allow others to add information to the database. We share pre-built forms with committee chairs that allow them to record events and attachments for their own committees. Once these forms are submitted, the database is immediately updated and this information is immediately available on our site.

Airtable was the ideal solution for our needs: 1. Easy to use for data-entry. 2. Custom views on the stored data. 3. An easy way to retrieve data via HTTP requests leading to custom presentation of the data on the web. 4. Custom forms for data-entry by third parties. 5. Automatic backup of data. 6. Change tracking on all entries in the database. Take a look, it may be just the database you need too.