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Ask Slashdot: Easy-To-Use Alternative To MS Access For a Charity's Database? 281

New submitter danzvash (447536) writes "I'm doing some volunteering for a street kids charity in Senegal, West Africa, and they need a new database to store all their information for the kids, and to help the funding organizations like UNICEF. The charity staff have a few computers running Windows 7. Being a die-hard OSS geek I'm more inclined to knock up a MySQL backend with a Django (or similar) front-end and run the whole thing from a reliable VPS. But it needs to be understandable by the non-geeks in the charity — there is no IT expertise here. Is there anything that can allow me to design and edit databases, tables, and forms but doesn't require an MS license?"
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Ask Slashdot: Easy-To-Use Alternative To MS Access For a Charity's Database?

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  • by lesincompetent ( 2836253 ) on Thursday May 15, 2014 @01:50PM (#47010569)
    Do what you said you are inclined to do and then cook up a cunning web interface for your user(s).
  • I think the question might be asked backwards, here. If there is really no IT expertise there, then is Access actually going to get them anything? You might be better off setting them up with something much simpler (for example a spreadsheet) unless they need to be able to connect to it from multiple systems simultaneously or have other requirements that a spreadsheet cannot match.

    Don't make your problem more difficult than it needs to be... If you give them software that they can't use then most likely they will stop using it once you are on the plane.
  • by Archangel Michael ( 180766 ) on Thursday May 15, 2014 @02:16PM (#47010879) Journal

    There is too little information given to decide what product solution is "best' for this situation.

    Note cards work, Spreadsheet is often enough for "simple" databases. Access and similar are good for designing a good front end (not for the database) and so on.

    From the sounds of it (reading between the lines), a good CRM like SugarCRM might actually be a better solution. However without more information, any recommendation is pure guessing at this point.

  • by lgw ( 121541 ) on Thursday May 15, 2014 @02:34PM (#47011071) Journal

    BS. Access is a terrible database to use as a back-end for real software doing something complex, but it's great as a single-user tool with its own UI.

    While a spreadsheet might be more accessible to non-geeks, Access tries pretty hard to give a low-learning-curve to making simple queries and simple GUIs to show the results of queries, or make simple table edits.

    I suspect the OP could make a spreadsheet work, however.

  • by ShanghaiBill ( 739463 ) on Thursday May 15, 2014 @02:42PM (#47011159)

    my advice from being in similar positions? Just use excel.

    Depending on the amount of data, and how it is used, a text file may also work well.

    There are way too many missing pieces of information:
    1. What are they using now?
    2. Do they think they need a "new database", or does the submitter think that? In either case, why is a change needed?
    3. How much data?
    4. How is it being used?
    5. Do they have a reliable internet connection? If so, Google Docs may be a good, and free, solution.
    6. How long is the submitter going to stick around? Can things be patched remotely? Is there a local enthusiastic teenager that can be trained to be the IT fix-it guy?
    7. ???

  • by Noah Haders ( 3621429 ) on Thursday May 15, 2014 @02:55PM (#47011317)
    google docs may work well... if everybody in senegal has reliable internet connections...
  • by Jeff Flanagan ( 2981883 ) on Thursday May 15, 2014 @03:25PM (#47011581)
    >Star/Open/Libre Office are shit for anything more than the bare basics.

    The Word Processors in those packages are very capable. I haven't needed MS Office at home for many years now thanks to those alternatives. What about them left you unsatisfied to such a tremendous degree that you label them "shit?"
  • by clovis ( 4684 ) on Thursday May 15, 2014 @03:33PM (#47011665)

    "I'm doing some volunteering for a street kids charity in Senegal, West Africa, and they need a new database to store all their information for the kids, and to help the funding organizations like UNICEF"

    Suppose a department in the company you're working for came to you and said "We want a database to store information, and we want to do it with Lotus Notes". Would your first response be start implementing Lotus Notes, or would it be to say "Umm, just a sec here. Why do you think you need a database?" and "What kind of data, how much data will there be, what do you want to do with it?"

    Of course, that's one of the most annoying things that IT people do: ignore your question and try to help solve your actual problem. I apologize now.
    For one thing, your problem may already have been solved for someone else.

    Are we talking about committing to paying monthly fees for a VPS server? If so, I do not see why the problem with paying for MS Access licenses.

    My other question is, if we're talking about about a few PC's running Windows 7 and zero-tech knowledge, how are you going to handle backups and restores of the mysql database and the custom apps?

    With MS Access or Excel, you can do backups and restores to/from a CD-ROM, or to a USB stick with a trivially easy restore that anyone could assist with over the phone. With SQL Server Express and some other suggestions, not so easy.

  • Re:Donation? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Jeff Flanagan ( 2981883 ) on Thursday May 15, 2014 @03:39PM (#47011725)
    >Being a die-hard OSS geek

    I guess the root of the problem is the submitter then. The charity needs to replace them with a less-biased person so the best decision can be made, whether that be OSS or a free-or-cheap charity license for Access.
  • Spreadsheet vs DB (Score:5, Insightful)

    by dowens81625 ( 2500160 ) on Thursday May 15, 2014 @06:25PM (#47013459)

    My general guidelines, for data storage, Fields A, B, through Z by $X records

    is $X > 10,000 records? - If Yes use a DB if No see Next Question

    Do I need separate out data by type or access, such as Joe can see Name, DOB, Telephone number, Address, Emergency contact info etc. But Jane should only see Name, and Emergency Contact? - If Yes use a DB if No see Next Question

    Will more than 1 user need to write data at to this at the same time? If Yes use a DB if No see Next Question

    Will more than have users need to read data from this at the same time or will anyone need to read real time changes data? If Yes use a DB if No see Next Question

    If you have answered No to all of the above questions, Then use a spreadsheet.

  • by hey! ( 33014 ) on Thursday May 15, 2014 @10:20PM (#47014733) Homepage Journal

    Well, I don't have a problem with HSQLDB, which is the engine used by Base, but when I did a similar exercise for a non-profit a while back the problem with Base was it shipped with an old, old version of HSQLDB. The subset of HSQL it supported was *totally* undocumented. Basically nothing beyond the most basic stuff worked. You couldn't even used stored procedures to get around the limitations (I needed the Base/HSQLDB combination to calculate an UUID -- simple stuff).

    I am a big non-fan of MS Access. For one thing its the *only* database product I've ever used that gives *wrong* answers (usually there's a null involved somehow, and a connection to an external database). But MS Access with the stand alone JET engine addresses quite a wide range of practical situations better than anything else that's out there, and that's sad.

    OO Base is meant to address the same range of situations, but it's simply impossible to recommend such a poorly documented and quirky product to someone you're not going to be around to support. I suppose you could use Base with Firebird, HSQLDB, Derby, or some such, but I have experience with supporting organizations out in the field in primitive conditions, and sooner or later they're going to need to re-install the software. And most people aren't good at that. They lose heart if there's too many steps.

    So the advantage something like Access, Base, or FileMaker, despite their many warts, is that the overview is simple. Pop the installation CD in and click through. Open a copy of the last back of the "database file" you have and see how much stuff you have to re-enter.

    I really, really, really wish I could recommend Base, but as of the last time I checked, I simply can't unless the documentation and HSQLDB version problems have been addressed.

We gave you an atomic bomb, what do you want, mermaids? -- I. I. Rabi to the Atomic Energy Commission