Databases don’t have to be boring

Let me start this by saying I don’t know how to build a database, but I’m the Statesman’s database guy.

Instead of building databases the old-fashioned way (with language I don’t understand and mind-bending logic questions that  hurt my head to think about), we use Caspio.

I learned it on the fly, with the help of my colleague Christian McDonald, who was Caspio-ing before me and with the help of Caspio’s helpful support.

Although there’s still a learning curve, anyone can do it if he or she has enough time to get familiar with the software. The trick is figuring out interesting things to build.

In the past 18 months or so, I’ve tried a lot of things, from a parks database to a spas database to one that shows how the City Council members spent their extra expense money.

Caspio has built-in Google (or Yahoo) map mashup capabilities. Well, it’s sort of built-in. I still struggle with that each time I build a database that has a map mashup.

So, what are the non-boring things you can do with this?

You can ask users to submit their salaries (anonymously) and then make that database searchable. I came up with that idea when Parade issued its annual “What we earn” issue. I figured people would share if they knew they were anonymous, and boy did they! We received nearly 12,000 entries. You could also search through the results by category or by business. This is voyeurism at its best. Everyone wants to know what their neighbors earn. Although there were some glitches, such as poeple accidentally saying they earned $5,000 (I regrettably made that the default, so you had to be careful), it went pretty well. Very few people seemed to mess with the database, either. Usually, people love messing up user-generated content with silly or obscene material. Didn’t get that much on this one.

Another thing you can try is to ask government agencies for large databases, or just look for large amounts of official data online, and then make it manageable and work the way you want it to. Before the primaries, I took the FEC data on campaign contributions and put it into database form. The fun with this one is not only seeing to whom your neighbors gave money, but also seeing what celebrities did. You can spend a lot of time playing around on this one.

Those databases took a while to build. But now that I’ve gotten used to the software, I can build simple databases quite a bit quicker. I built one before Hurricane Ike hit that allowed people to post their cancellations and volunteer/donation opportunities related to the storm. After the storm rolled through, I built one that allows people to give their own reports on what’s going on in Southeast Texas.

Although Caspio correctly bills itself as the “No More Programming” database solution, it does take a lot of patience and the willingness to get frustrated on occassion. But these databases do work, and they can be fun.

And if you care about page views, these things really can bring them in. The salaries database received 217,000+ page views. You’re all a bunch of voyeurs!

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1 Comment

Filed under journalism

One response to “Databases don’t have to be boring

  1. James

    even this is boring

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