I had a problem on my hands.
I was working on a large project. I mean REALLY large – multiple buildings, millions of square feet and lots and lots of information. One of my tasks was to keep track of all the room specific requirements. The owners had their requirements, the engineers had theirs, and we had our own as well. It was a lot of data – we’re talking well over a thousand rooms.
In order to keep my head above the water, I needed a better way to keep track of all this information. Excel wasn’t going to cut it anymore.On a project this size, it’s really difficult to keep track of everything. There are lots of cracks important information can fall into.
A better way to manage project data
As we all know, designing a building is an information intensive activity. There are thousands of decisions that need to be made. Hundreds of products need to be evaluated. I’m pretty sure there’s more wood in all the paper that goes into designing that paper than there is in the building itself. Storing and retrieving this data is a major challenge on a day-to-day basis, let alone 5 – 10 years down the road.
Additionally, how can we leverage this data to inform future projects? Stuffing a bunch of files into a folder on a server somewhere isn’t going to cut it. We need some real tools to keep control of our data and to put it at our fingertips. This data is the lifeblood of our firms.
This is where databases come in.
What is a database?
A database is a structured collection of information that is stored in a computer. We interact with databases everyday though most of the time, we aren’t aware of it. Most large websites such as Amazon, Google, and Facebook are powered by databases.
Every database has a structure. The structure determines how all of the data relates to each other. The most common model used today is the relational model. Relational databases break data into named tables and establish relationships between these tables using a common key or identifier.
Software known as a “database management system” (DBMS) is used to implement the database structure. Microsoft Access, Filemaker Pro, mySQL, and SQL Server are all database management software applications. Most database software only stores data. Microsoft Access and Filemaker, however, provide tools for building a custom “front-end” for entering, retrieving, and presenting data.
Why use a database instead of Excel?
I’ve written a lot about Excel in previous posts. You can’t beat Excel’s ability to crunch numbers and present small amounts of data. However, if you’re dealing with a lot of data, you quickly run up against Excel’s limitations. Here are 5 major advantages of a database over a spreadsheet:
- Databases can easily handle large amounts of data. Even entry-level databases can handle a TON of data.
- Databases are inherently multi-user so multiple people can enter and edit data simultaneously.
- Databases are relational so you can link tables to ensure the data is accurate and to minimize duplication.
- Data can be formatted multiple ways by using reports. The data is separate from its presentation so you can create a variety of reports from the same data.
- Specific data entry forms can be created for entering information into the database. You can even configure your forms to exclude certain types of data.
When not to use a database
While they are very powerful, databases do have their limitation. Here are four instances when you wouldn’t want to use a database:
- You need to calculate a lot of numbers.
- You need to track a simple list of data.
- You want to create charts and graphs.
- You want to create “what-if” scenarios.
In these cases, a spreadsheet application like Excel would work much better than a database.
I’ve built a number of databases over the years. As I mentioned at the beginning of the post, I was tasked with gathering all the room specific requirements on a large multi-building project. I quickly realized that Excel wasn’t up for the task so I built a database to manage all the information.
Each room had an entry in the database and there were fields for the owner, engineering, and architectural requirements. There were close to seventy fields in all. We had a large team working on the project so multiple people could enter data simultaneously. In the end, we produced a series of detailed reports outlining all the requirements.
I have also built databases to track drawing issues and field observation reports. One of the real benefits to using a database was the ability to output the data in multiple formats. For example, I could generate a detailed field observation report showing pictures for each observation or I could generate a brief summary of all the observations. Both reports used the same data but in a different format.
This is just a basic introduction to databases. Hopefully you have a better understanding of what they do and why they’re useful. In the next installment, we’ll look at the elements that make up a database, starting with tables for storing data. Stay tuned!