Thursday, October 05, 2006

Checking-In at Times of Danger

Yesterday, my administrator charged me with having in place by Monday's staff meeting a very simple online system that we can use for staff to check-in if we should have another disaster such as the tsunami.

It doesn't work to just have staff tell us their travel plans ahead of time because the staff is too large and plans change too easily. We need a super simple, online way for staff to quickly and easily check-in to let us know they are safe, and maybe give contact information for where they are on their holiday.

As I try to get my brain around what this should look like, We've come up with the following criteria.
  • Should be linked to our school web site or have such an easy URL that staff will remember it.
  • Should allow one person to check-in everyone they are traveling with. (Yes, this can lead to problems--everything related to user-entered data has potential for problems. It is all a balancing game.)
  • Should have a comments field.
  • Should have a password, but it should be one we all know- fortunately we have one of those.
  • Should allow administrators to easily sort to determine who is not yet checked in.
  • The basic login should take them to a form that helps them search for their record. However, users should be able to browse through the database in list view so that they can see that colleagues are safe.
I won't allow users to delete records, but I may need to allow them to add a new user since our school is large and I am not automatically notified when someone new is added to our division. However, that almost guarantees that users already in the database will re-enter themselves. Maybe users should have to option to search by name or by their school email address. Hopefully we won't have both their name and their email address incorrectly entered into the database.

I've checked out a number of applications. I first thought to use Google's spreadsheet tool, since Google's servers are so stable. However, it leaves the data too vulnerable. It's too easy for users to accidentally delete data.

Next I looked at ZohoCreator. I love the idea of that tool, but I find it terribly confusing. Every time I try to use it I watch the demo videos, and I still find myself endlessly generating views and forms and never quite getting what I expect. Despite my struggles with it, this tool could work. It allows me to create a private database and then add users to it. I can group the users and give different groups different privileges, so that staff could enter data, and administration could do more with it. ZohoCreator has the added benefit that I can embed the form on a web page or blog and still have the data stored at Zoho. We could add a page to our website and embed the form on it, making it easy for staff to use.

Then I realized that we are able to access our FileMaker server via our web site. The down side is that it is not pretty; the user is given a rather cryptic list of databases from which to choose. Another challenge is that the passwords for accessing that are already set and not as easily remembered as I want. However, I may be able to change that.

Filemaker is an appealing tool because we already have it and I've been trying to increase my abilities to create databases using it. It is powerful enough to allow us different access for different users. I can make the pages visually easy to use. I think it is the tool for the job. I can easily set up something basic, and as I have time, I can improve upon it. Wish me luck.

I welcome words of wisdom regarding the project in general or Filemaker in particular. I've taken good Filemaker courses, but I have very little experience actually creating databases.