Low-Code/No-Code Tools: Implementation and Insights from the Field
A four-part series exploring the low-code/no-code tools U.S. Digital Response uses everyday
By: Alex Allain, CTO and Co-Founder at USDR
As U.S. Digital Response (USDR) celebrates our two year anniversary, we’re pulling back the curtain and showcasing some of the techniques we use to scale USDR and help our partners serve their communities.
First up: a series on how USDR has used low-code/no-code tools internally as well as with our partners. Our low-code/no-code series will also cover strengths and weaknesses, how we approach these tools with technical teams, and how to get started.
At USDR, we’ve completed over 300 projects to help over 200 governments and nonprofits use technology to support their communities in responding to crisis.
Many of the problems we’ve tackled are solved more quickly, and with lower maintenance, by low-code and no-code solutions compared to traditional software development processes.
If you’re not familiar with low-code/no-code tools, here are a few resources describing how they are being increasingly used in place of traditional hand-coded solutions. The beauty of low-code/no-code tools is that they don’t require programming skills, making them more accessible to non-technical teams. Instead, they require just a little bit of business logic to build an app on top of pre-made UI and workflow primitives. As a result, low-code/no-code solutions allow both engineers and non-engineers to solve problems more quickly.
Many teams already use some forms of low-code/no-code tools–they just might not call it that. Spreadsheet-based workflows can be extremely sophisticated without requiring any programming knowledge to master, making them effectively a no-code programming environment.
Effective, Adaptable Tools for Government Partners
At USDR, we’ve worked on at least 50 projects that use low-code/low-code tools with our partners, and our internal processes are all built using low-code/no-code tools. We’ve consistently found that our government partners, even when they don’t have previous experience with these tools, come away very excited about their potential. Following one project with USDR, Centre County Pennsylvania Commissioner Michael Pipe began adopting low code tools across the county.
We use these tools because they work, are low cost, interoperate within an ecosystem and are reasonably mature from a features+compliance perspective. In some cases, such as Power Automate, they are already available to most governments that use Office 365. In other cases, the tools are cheap enough to come in below many state or local procurement thresholds — so public servants can spin them up quickly. We built one solution to handle uploading eligibility verification documents for SNAP benefits at a total cost of $500/month–when we showed it to our partner, they thought we meant $500K/month.
While the low-code/no-code moniker is thrown around frequently, it is not a monolith or set of interchangeable components. While there are conceptual similarities between all the tools, each one has its own strengths and weaknesses, and often solves different problems.
At USDR, we work within the constraints and goals of each government partner to identify the tool that works best instead of advocating for any single company or toolset.
Within that context, we’ve found the following tool stacks to be particularly effective:
- Microsoft friendly: Power Automate, Excel, OneDrive, Cognito Forms
- Platform agnostic: JotForm, Zapier, Airtable, Stacker
- Our internal toolset: JotForm, Zapier, Airtable, Stacker, Slack, JS/Typescript, Render, Calendly
In the platform agnostic stack we use, Airtable provides both data storage and basic forms, JotForm provides a more sophisticated form builder, and Zapier allows you to glue together multiple parts of the ecosystem. By comparison, in the Microsoft stack, we’ve found that Power Automate plays a role similar to Zapier, Cognito Forms is often a good stand-in for JotForm, and Excel can sometimes be a stand-in for Airtable.
While these tools are already powerful for their specific use cases, with a bit of creativity they solve even more problems than it appears at first glance.
JotForm can be used to create not just forms but all wizards, such as this sample wizard that could be used by a county to help a new voter ensure they’re ready to vote. While Airtable appears to be a database or spreadsheet, it can also be used as a workflow building platform. When the Memphis Shelby County Emergency Rental Assistance team needed a short term solution for processing applications, and we were able to help them build out a solution leveraging Airtable as the backend tool for screening applications.
These tools and the broader ecosystem are rapidly changing as more use cases and new players come into the arena. Airtable just released a new interface designer, JotForm has released an Airtable-like backend called Jotform Tables, companies like AWS have created new platforms like HoneyCode, and open source alternatives like NoCoDb have recently launched.
Empowering Your Team to Pick the Right Tools
We’re excited about the development of additional options in this space, and regularly experiment with new platforms to find the best technical solutions for our partners. Again, low-code/no-code is not a monolithic category; particularly because these tools are trying to replace highly flexible full-code approaches, the exact details of what kinds of solutions they enable matters. There’s a much sharper line between “easy to implement” and “will require a great deal of work”. Our goal is to help you understand what falls into the “easy to implement” category for the tools we’ve used, what doesn’t, and empower you to evaluate any tool billed as “low-code/no-code”.
We hope this overview gives you a good sense of what these tools are and are capable of. Over the course of this series, we’ll cover the strengths, weaknesses and best use cases for these tools so you’ll know how and when each tool might be the right choice for you and your team.
Check out the rest of the series here:
- Strengths and weaknesses of low-code/no-code tools
- Thinking Like an Engineer: Selecting and Working with Low-Code/No-Code Tools
- How to Get Started with Low-Code/No-Code Tools
If you are a government partner looking for support, please reach out to us here. We’ve worked with these tools on engagements with governments across the country, and are happy to discuss how these tools could help you as well. Similarly, if you are a technologist or public servant looking for ways to use your skills on high-impact, high-urgency projects, join our USDR volunteer community and see our open staff positions.