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Why use a database?

 November 9

by Andrew Richards

I spend a lot of time working with clients. I go to see them in their offices and talk to them about the way they use Microsoft Office products.

I see some people who have a fabulous grasp of Microsoft Word. I see quite a few people who know the ins and outs of Microsoft Excel. But I also see a lot of people who are using Excel when in fact a database would be a better option

This isn’t just my prejudice towards Microsoft Access! I think Excel is a fabulous tool – it does things that blow my mind. But sometimes I see it being used where really a database would be a better option. I know this because when I talk to the client about what Microsoft Access would do for them they often say things like “You know – I never knew that was possible!”

So, I thought it might be worth sharing one or two ideas of what Microsoft Access – or indeed any database – can do for you. These are not just ideas that have sprung out of my mind! They are all examples drawn from what my clients are already doing with Access.

Incidentally, for examples of major database systems running in Microsoft access take a look at some of our case studies.

Examples of Microsoft Access databases in use

Tracking participation in surveys

One client I have is a professional polling company. They use Microsoft Access to track surveys which they run. Each survey is logged on their database and then each client of theirs who participates in the survey is also logged.

In this way they can see who has participated in any given survey. They can also see who generally participates regularly, and who doesn’t. They can target surveys to their clients when they feel it will be of interest based on past performance.

Tracking donations to charity

I was with a client recently who works in the charitable sector. They need to maintain a list of donations and donors. Each donation is tracked along with the date, the donor, the amount and other relevant information.

Furthermore, they can track the amounts in total. So, they can track how many donations they had last month, or the month before, or indeed any month. They can track the average value of donations. They can track the average value of donations per donor in any given year.

They can tie the donations to particular campaigns which they may be running. So therefore, they can track which campaigns have led to good levels of donations, or which may have worked less well. They can see which of their volunteers tend to do well in getting raising money from donors, and which do less well and might need more training.

Tracking land usage in Tibet

I love this example! It’s the sort of thing I would never have thought of!

I once helped a client build a database. She worked for the EU. When talking to her towards the start of the course about what she was planning to do with Microsoft Access, I was blown away by her answer.

She said “I am working on a cross – EU/Chinese government project. The project is to track how land is being used in Tibet. There are various projects underway to reorganise land usage – and we need to track which schemes work best. For example does it work better to divide the land into parcels for each landowner? Or is it better to leave the land unfenced so that people can share the work of tilling the land?

“Amongst other things, we track exactly what is on the land. Vegetation, types of crop, insects and so on. And we track how this is affected by the way the land is used.”

I never even knew that such projects existed! But there it is – and all this is being tracked in a Microsoft Access database.

Analysis history for a forensic laboratory

We’ve worked with a client for around a decade, building, maintaining and expanding a Microsoft Access database for for their environmental and forensic laboratory. They perform analysis on the samples such as air samples and other compounds.

Each month they send out anything up to 10,000 sample tubes. They need to track when these are dispatched, and when they are returned. These tubes must then be analysed – and so they need to track which have yet to be analysed, which have already been analysed, and what the results of the analysis were.

Furthermore, some of the tubes can be reused – but only a certain number of times.

So the database tracks how many times each tube has been used, and then flags up that it must be reconditioned.

It may be that tubes have been sent to a client, but are yet to be returned. So the database allows them to see which tubes have been sent but never returned. It allows them to automate much of the work in tracking tubes through their system – e-mailing clients, producing reports, performing analysis and so on.

Publications and sales

Another client I work with from time to time is a publishing house. Their Microsoft Access database allows them to track the books that they publish, the sales for those books and associated information.

Much of this data is stored in a SQL server database. But Microsoft access is used as the front end for the database, allowing for a user interface to be created which is simple to use. The data can be moved from SQL into Microsoft Access, out of Access and into Microsoft Excel, and back again.

There are many, many other examples I could quote. But I thought it might be useful just to give an idea of the breadth of what’s possible in Microsoft Access. Of course, other database systems are available. For large-scale databases – all those requiring significant security – Microsoft SQL server is the better product. Oracle provides another alternative. And if you use Apple Macs, then maybe FileMaker is the choice for you.

How can we help?

If any of this makes you think “maybe we should be looking at a database…” then don’t hesitate to get in touch on 020 3397 1333, or via our contact page. We’d be delighted to have a chat to you about what’s possible, with no obligation.

And if you’ve got an interesting use of Microsoft access in your office, we’d love to hear from you! Get in touch to tell us about it, and we can share your story through our blog!

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