Data management is a critical aspect of any business. The importance of importing, editing, and validating data to maintain data quality cannot be overstated. Yet, teams struggle to keep the data in their databases up-to-date. Let's examine some of the challenges we face and potential solutions.
Challenge #1 – Developers and DB Admin teams face recurring data import and validation issues when keeping production databases up-to-date
One of the main reasons for this challenge is that it’s difficult to establish a consistent process for data quality. Scripts for data imports can break due to inadequate business data. This can occur when your business team inputs incorrect data, or if the technical team lacks clear guidelines for handling corner cases. The repetitive and time-consuming nature of data cleaning and validation diverts valuable time and resources away from other important tasks.
Imagine this -Your business team is responsible for updating information about inventory levels. The technical team is responsible for importing this data into the production database, but they often face issues with formatting errors, missing data, and incorrect product codes in the spreadsheet. This may cause their existing import scripts to break, forcing the technical team to rewrite the scripts to handle new corner cases. These newly written scripts are then used to manually edit and validate the data before it can be imported. This overall process causes delays in keeping the production data and database up-to-date, affecting the company's ability to accurately track inventory and fulfill customer orders.
Challenge #2 - Developers and DB admin teams spend time and money building and re-building internal tools/admin panels to dummy-proof the database
The process developers and DB admins go through to build and update databases can be time-consuming and costly, as it requires them to manually build many different internal applications. These applications need to be updated any time there are any changes to the database/schema, or when new features are added. Updates ensure that the internal tools and admin panels continue to meet users’ needs. The tools developed also need to be maintained and tested to ensure that they continue to run smoothly. This adds additional time and resources to the development and maintenance of these tools, thereby increasing its overall TCO (total cost of ownership).
Imagine this -Developers and DB admins have to build different applications to make the database accessible and user-friendly, for example, internal tools and admin panels to make it easy for customer service representatives to access and update customer information. These tools include a user-friendly interface for searching and viewing customer information, and options for adding, editing, and deleting data. Developers also include a variety of security features to prevent unauthorized access or accidental data deletion. At the same time, the business is constantly updating its services and adding new features, so the internal tools and admin panels need to be updated accordingly. As a result, developers spend a significant effort in re-building to ensure that they are always up-to-date, maintaining these tools to ensure they are running smoothly, troubleshooting any issues that arise, and make any necessary updates to improve their functionality.
Challenge #3 – Outdated Data Affects Key Business Metrics
As the speed and volume at which data is generated by the business increases, it becomes increasingly important and challenging to keep it up-to-date. The business may depend on operational data to be updated in near real-time, as it directly impacts key business metrics and performance. Without a safe and efficient way to update this data, the business may face difficulties in remaining competitive and making sound decisions.
Imagine this - The marketing team relies on a customer database to track leads and conversions. The database is used to record customer information, track customer interactions, and track the effectiveness of marketing campaigns. However, the database becomes quickly outdated which affects key business metrics such as conversion rates and customer retention. The data might be missing important information or it might be recorded incorrectly. As a result, the company's conversion rates are skewed, making it difficult to identify which campaigns are most effective. Additionally, the company's customer retention metrics are also affected by an outdated database. The company will only be analyzing outdated data to track customer interactions, which can lead to inaccurate conclusions about customer satisfaction.
Challenge #4 – Bottlenecks caused by back-and-forth between teams
Technical and business teams have different focuses in their workflow, but often share the same responsibility and goal to keep critical business data up-to-date. In theory, the technical team is solely responsible for updating the database with data received from the business team, with the ideal case being that the business team provides 100% correctly formatted data based on the database’s constraints and requirements. In practice however, this often does not happen due to issues such as the business team not understanding constraints and how the data is used, and manual (unintended) errors in inputting data. These issues lead to delays and follow-up from the technical team, causing a bottleneck in the process and ultimately delaying updates to the database, which could impact the business.
Imagine this - Your company's database contains information about shipping estimates that are critical to the business. Unfortunately, due to challenges importing data and getting enough context on how to update it in the database, both business and technical teams may be blocked. The technical team may need to follow up in multiple rounds with the business team for more context on the required updates and the business team may be waiting on the dev teams to proceed with updates. The end result is that there are delays in updating the database and data becomes stale. These issues could continue through multiple rounds of back-and-forth and now many more days or weeks later, the rest of the business teams or other applications operated with incorrect data.
Challenge #5 – Business teams spend time and resources writing requirements for internal tools and learning how to use them
Business teams often invest a large amount of time and resources into collaborating with developers to build internal tools/admin panels on top of learning how to use them. Productive collaboration is vital because a lack of understanding of the business needs may lead to over-developing or building unnecessary tools. As database tables and business needs constantly evolve, internal tools and admin panels quickly become outdated and are difficult to maintain once the developer who built it switches teams or leaves the company. Oftentimes, the tools built do more than needed, especially when the business teams only need to make small changes such as switching flags, updating a single value, or correcting customer information.
Imagine this - Your ops or customer support team needs a quick and easy way to extend a customer’s trial, update a customer’s address, change a subscription plan, or enable a particular feature for them. Any of these changes only require making a change in one field of the database. However, it is important to note that there is no safe way to make an edit directly in the database. Because it isn’t a good practice to open up the database to business users without safety protocols, controls, or data validations, developers end up building an entire set of admin panels or internal tools for the sole purpose of empowering business users to safely make these edits directly. The business team will write down the list of actions they need to take, specify any requirements, and then collaborate with developers through the entire lifecycle of the tool/app, including development, testing, maintenance, and deprecation. This takes multiple cycles of both the business and the development team’s time.
Streamlining your process for importing, editing, and validating data can help to ensure that the data used by your business is:
This in turn can lead to improved decision-making by the business and ease the workflow of technical teams. While it may seem straightforward, it can be difficult to put into practice. In this context, we will review some solutions available in the market, and evaluate their effectiveness based on our proposed criteria.
Given the needs of the business and the challenges observed, good solutions should provide varying degrees of the following criteria:
We have summarized the positioning of each solution based on two fundamental factors: Setup Time and Safety. Given these factors, you can quickly determine which tool would be most appropriate for your business needs. It is not necessarily appropriate to say one solution is better than another, but rather a specific solution may be more valuable to your current business strategy.
These factors emphasize the trade-off between setup time and safety with different plausible solutions that all offer some variation of these factors. Depending on your willingness to balance this trade-off, different solutions may very well work for you at different stages of your business life cycle. Therefore, it is highly suggested that you look into each solution thoroughly before deciding on which method is most suitable for you. Further details are below with an in-depth discussion of each solution weighed against our expert criteria.
Solution #1 - Direct database edits using a database editor
It is generally not recommended to make direct edits to a database using a database editor. Directly editing a database leads to data inconsistencies and integrity issues, as there are no built-in validation or error-checking mechanisms. It is also easy to accidentally delete or corrupt important data. It is strongly recommended to use a more formal and safe method to interact with a production database. This is listed as a current solution because, in practice, we know many teams resort to this approach. In almost all cases, this is the approach they take because it’s the fastest path to updating highly time-sensitive data in production databases, but teams usually calculate the risks of doing so. In a few cases, where the data isn’t live yet (e.g. a data migration from one database to another) or when the data isn’t relied on by another production system, teams will directly make updates in the database.
Safely enables bulk edits, updates, and imports directly into your prod database:With direct edits, teams can make manual bulk edits, updates, and imports directly into the prod database very quickly but you risk breaking your entire database if you do not have a backup. It is best recommended to use a version control system to make any changes to your prod database, however, many developers risk going direct due to working against deadlines.
Reduces the need for custom scripts, re(building) admin panels:To import data directly into a production database, developers will still need to write an import script. If the data is clean and fully validated, many database systems will have a built-in feature to ingest a CSV file. If the data isn’t already clean and validated then a custom script is still required and back-and-forth with the business team will also be required in order to successfully import all the required data.
Eliminates manual repetitive tasks and constant updating: Still requires manual edits, updates, and imports which does not eliminate the need to assign repetitive tasks to developers to constantly update the database. A custom script could help automate repetitive tasks, but if the database schema changes or if the business data contains validation errors, developers will have to rewrite the script or work with business users to ensure the data is correct.
Enhances collaborative efforts to reduce bottlenecks: Databases don’t often come with collaboration features, especially not features that allow DB admins and business users to collaborate on data edits and data imports. Most of the time, third-party tools or custom-built tools are used on top of the database to provide this functionality.
Offers a simpler user interface to enter and validate data: Some database systems provide a simple spreadsheet interface to update data directly. However, the user making the edits requires the right permissions and the right technical expertise to be able to make direct edits or import data without breaking the database and meeting requirements.
Solution #2 – Excel or Google Sheets
Excel and Google Sheets are both spreadsheet software programs that allow users to organize and analyze data in a tabular format. Both programs allow users to create and edit spreadsheets, perform calculations, and analyze data. One advantage Google Sheets has over Excel is its easy-to-use, real-time collaboration and sharing features.
Safely enables bulk edits, updates, and imports directly into your prod database:Both Excel and Google Sheets can be used as data sources for bulk imports into databases, in most cases by saving them in CSV format, or in some cases directly. However, it is important to ensure that the data is formatted correctly and all fields are present before importing. This method still requires you to write your own import script and validation rules, and test the workflow with multiple source files to guarantee it can successfully import data to the database without issues or conflicts. In most cases, the import script should have best practices and safety features built-in to ensure the database remains accurate, and properly updated, and errors are handled correctly.
Reduces the need for custom scripts, re(building) admin panels:Excel and Google Sheets are not designed to replace custom scripts or admin panels in all cases. They are best used as a tool to manage and organize data before it is imported into a database or used to create reports. In cases where the data manipulation or management requirements are too complex, Excel and Google Sheets may not be the best solution, and custom scripts or admin panels are most likely needed.
Eliminates manual repetitive tasks and constant updating:Excel and Google Sheets can be used to automate and eliminate some manual, repetitive tasks by using built-in features such as column calculations, macros, and scripting languages such as VBA or Google Apps Script. However, the data will still need to be separately imported and updated in the database.
Enhances collaborative efforts to reduce bottlenecks:Excel and Google Sheets can be used to enhance collaborative efforts and reduce bottlenecks by allowing multiple users to access and edit the same spreadsheet and adding comments/notes for data values that do not pass validation rules. However, even after all issues are resolved within the spreadsheets, there might be additional issues that are only caught during import to the database, such as type mismatch issues, duplicate values, or other database constraints.
Offers a simpler user interface to enter and validate data:Excel and Google Sheets offer the simplest and most intuitive user interface for entering and updating data. They provide basic data validation rules, but still important to have further checks in place to validate the data right before it is imported into a database, as the database may require different validations than those the spreadsheet allows. It’s also important to have a process for reviewing data and conflicts to ensure that any errors or inconsistencies are caught before the data is imported.
Solution #3 – Airtable
Airtable is a spreadsheet software that allows you to store, organize, and update information in a flexible and user-friendly way. It combines the capabilities of a traditional spreadsheet, such as Excel, with the features of a database management system. With its user-friendly interface, Airtable is a popular alternative to traditional databases for many businesses.
Safely enables bulk edits, updates, and imports directly into your prod database: Airtable shares similar capabilities to Excel/Google Sheets, but offers additional filtering, sorting, and grouping features to enable bulk edits. However, to transfer data from Airtable to a database, users will have to rely on external tools or write custom scripts that make use of Airtable’s REST API.
Reduces the need for custom scripts, re(building) admin panels: Airtable is best used as a tool to manage and organize data. In the context of editing or importing data, Airtable could be used as an intermediary store to clean and validate all the data manually before it is imported into a database by a DB admin, via custom import scripts that use Airtable’s APIs. Airtable makes it really easy to build simple admin panels or internal tools to edit data, but it works best with data stored in Airtable and not data stored in your own database. Airtable has a rich set of APIs, which allow developers to create custom scripts and integrations to automate repetitive tasks. In cases where the data requirements are too complex, Airtable may not be the best solution and more developer-friendly tools will be required.
Eliminates manual repetitive tasks and constant updating:Airtable can be used to automate and eliminate manual, repetitive tasks and constant updating, by using automation capabilities such as blocks and formulas, scheduling automation and connecting to external data sources. Its capabilities however, have limits to some use cases.
Enhances collaborative efforts to reduce bottlenecks:Airtable can be used to enhance collaborative efforts and reduce bottlenecks by allowing multiple users to access and edit the same table, and by creating custom views, reports and dashboards that can be shared with team members and stakeholders.
Offers a simpler user interface to enter and validate data: Airtable offers a user-friendly interface for entering and manually validating data, with a grid-like layout, custom forms, basic built-in data validation features and custom formulas. However, it's still important to have a process in place to validate the data before it is imported into a database, which in most cases will require more customization and flexibility.
Solution #4 – Dropbase
Dropbase is a cloud-based data management platform that helps developers and DB Admins edit/update data in their databases via smart tables that can be easily shared with business and ops teams, who can easily import, edit, and validate data with real-time feedback. The platform is also designed to make it easy to make bulk edits via imports from CSV and Excel files, which are also validated. Dropbase provides a user-friendly spreadsheet interface that makes it easy for both technical and business to collaborate on getting high-quality data into the database safely and quickly. Dropbase provides data governance features that allow teams to manage and control access to databases and tables.
Safely enables bulk edits, updates, and imports directly into your prod database:Dropbase offers a streamlined workflow specifically for making bulk edits, updates, and file imports in your database. This flow ensures your data is quickly updated while protecting your database with built-in data validations that offer the same layer of safety as your custom applications.
Reduces the need for custom scripts, re(building) admin panels:Dropbase provides a user-friendly spreadsheet interface, which eliminates the need for custom scripts and building admin panels entirely, especially for most of the use cases that require single value/cell updates in your database tables. After business users make edits or data imports, a developer or DBA can simply review and approve changes, and safely sync data to the database on demand, without the need for import scripts, admin panels, or internal tools.
Eliminates manual repetitive tasks and constant updating: Dropbase automates the entire data process, minimizing the necessary actions to simply add new data to the database. It offers manual CSV/Excel file imports, automated file imports via email attachments (Dropmail), and direct cell edits with data validation built-in.
Enhances collaborative efforts to reduce bottlenecks: Dropbase breaks the boundaries (and bottlenecks) between technical and business teams, by introducing staging tables that can be edited by multiple team members and synchronization features to quickly push changes in staging tables directly to production tables.
Offers a simpler user interface to enter and validate data: Dropbase offers a spreadsheet user interface that is specifically built for collaborative edits, file imports, and data validations. It allows data imports via CSV/Excel file uploads or email attachments, and the ability to easily add custom validation rules to enforce app-level data validations. This makes data edits safe, quick, and hassle-free, reducing the back-and-forth between technical and business teams to maintain high data quality.
Dropbase is by far the simplest and most powerful tool for safely editing and importing data to your database.
Note/Disclaimer: This article is written by the creator and employees at Dropbase.
Solution #5 - Use admin panels automatically generated by your backend framework
Some backend frameworks like Django provide a simple auto-generated admin panel. It’s often one of the reasons these frameworks remain popular. This method allows developers to easily create an interface for managing the data stored in a database, without the need to manually create and maintain the user interface. It's important to note that even though these admin panels are automatically generated, they are not meant to be used as a final solution for production environments - usually, they are intended for development or testing purposes, and should be customized or built from scratch for production environments. Users may still use this to update data in production as these tools often mirror data validations from the backend, but there are no ways to review and roll back changes once they’ve been made.
Safely enables bulk edits, updates, and imports directly into your prod database:Admin panels that are automatically generated by a backend framework can provide a convenient way to manage a database, including making bulk edits, updates, and imports. However, it is important to note that the level of functionality provided by these panels can vary depending on the framework used, and should be thoroughly tested before going live in your production database
Reduces the need for custom scripts, re(building) admin panels:The level of functionality provided by these automatically generated admin panels can vary depending on the framework used. It may be the case that certain customizations or additional functionality are required that cannot be achieved using the built-in admin panel alone. In this case, custom scripts or additional development work may be needed to achieve the desired functionality
Eliminates manual repetitive tasks and constant updating:Even if the admin panel is generated automatically, it does not completely eliminate the need for updating and maintenance. The underlying framework and the dependencies need to be updated regularly, to ensure security and bug fixes. Furthermore, the usage and needs of the application may change, which would require updating and customizing the admin panel accordingly
Enhances collaborative efforts to reduce bottlenecks:Most admin panels do not have collaboration features built-in so whenever there are conflicts in the data, technical and business users still need to coordinate on what and how to update the data.
Offers a simpler user interface to enter and validate data: These panels often provide a centralized, easy-to-use interface for managing a database, which can help to streamline tasks such as data entry, updates, imports, and validations. Admin panels usually provide a simple form interface to make edits.
Solution #6 - Retool
Retool is a web-based tool that allows developers to build custom internal tools and dashboards quickly. It provides a visual, drag-and-drop interface for building user interfaces and connecting to databases, APIs, and external services. Retool allows developers to focus on the logic and functionality of their tools, rather than on the UI and infrastructure.
Safely enables bulk edits, updates, and imports directly into your prod database:Retool allows developers to build ways to safely interact with the database, but it is not a tool that is specifically designed for making bulk updates to production databases. It is up to developers to add validation logic to edit or import data.
Reduces the need for custom scripts, re(building) admin panels:Retool will not reduce the need for custom scripts or re-building admin panels as it is a tool that allows you to build these custom tools. It does however make it easy to not build the same UI components multiple times as it provides a library of pre-built components out of the box.
Enhances collaborative efforts to reduce bottlenecks: Retool allows multiple users to access and use the same tools and workflows, which can help to reduce bottlenecks and improve efficiency. Retool also allows you to share tools and workflows with others, which can help to reduce the need for each team member to build their own tools and workflows
Solution #7 - Flatfile
Flatfile is a software company that provides data import and validation tools that help businesses automate and streamline their data entry process. It is a web-based solution that allows developers to embed features to import and validate data from Excel, CSV, or other spreadsheets into their applications or backend systems. For end users that import data, it features a drag-and-drop interface, custom validation rules, and the ability to handle large data sets, which can help to improve data accuracy and reduce errors.
Safely enables bulk edits, updates, and imports directly into your prod database:Flatfile is primarily a data import and validation tool, it doesn't offer direct integration with databases so developers need to build those flows themselves. It allows users to import, validate and clean data from Excel, CSV, or other spreadsheets, and then export it in a format that can be imported into a database via custom scripts. To import validated data, developers write their own import scripts to the database and handle any data conflicts or database constraints that cannot be specified through the validation rules.
Reduces the need for custom scripts, re(building) admin panels:As a developer tool, Flatfile provides an SDK that developers can use to build custom import and validation flows. For end users, however, Flatfile provides a simple spreadsheet interface to edit and clean data without building additional internal tools. Flatfile could be used in conjunction with other custom scripts or internal tool builders to provide a layer of data validation.
Eliminates manual repetitive tasks and constant updating:Flatfile can make it quicker and more straightforward to import data and make it easier to collaborate on data import tasks with others. Flatfile automatically validates and maps data which helps reduce manual tasks.
Enhances collaborative efforts to reduce bottlenecks:Flatfile improves collaboration and reduces bottlenecks between business and technical teams by allowing multiple users to access and edit data and allowing developers to pre-specify validation rules and import flows.
Offers a simpler user interface to enter and validate data: Flatfile provides a user-friendly interface for mapping data fields, identifying and correcting errors, and previewing the final dataset before importing it into a database or other system. This makes the process of data entry and validation more efficient and less error-prone.
Solution #8 - Using custom scripts/apps to build basic edit and import workflows from scratch
Using custom scripts and applications to build components yourself allows for greater flexibility and control over the final outcome of the project. This approach allows developers to tailor the application to specific needs, and make adjustments as needed. It also allows for more creative freedom and the ability to experiment with different technologies, while maintaining good documentation and version control throughout the process to ensure maintainability and scalability.
Safely enables bulk edits, updates, and imports directly into your prod database:This criteria can be achieved but requires writing proper import scripts that safely allow users to make bulk edits, updates, and imports directly into your production database. It also requires handling errors, conflicts, and other corner cases due to additional database constraints. Overall this approach provides the most flexibility, safety and convenience, but takes the longest to implement and deploy. Apps have to be built for each of the individual use cases required by business teams.
Reduces the need for custom scripts, re(building) admin panels:Does not reduce the need for custom scripts, and rebuilding admin panels. Quite the opposite, this approach is based on building custom scripts, therefore increasing the need for these actions - each component needs to be custom-built in order to properly update the database
Eliminates manual repetitive tasks and constant updating: Automation can be built with custom apps, but the more automation is required, the longer the development time. Some tasks will still be repetitive and apps need to be constantly tested and updated to ensure reliability, and correctness, and to reduce risks to data quality and production databases
Enhances collaborative efforts to reduce bottlenecks:Developers can build collaboration flows within their custom apps but this takes multiple cycles. There will be many bottlenecks early in the project as business and development teams coordinate and align on requirements. Once the custom apps with collaboration features are deployed, it can significantly reduce back-and-forth, but teams will still face challenges in quickly updating data once teams have agreed on what/how to update it.
Offers a simpler user interface to enter and validate data:Does not offer a simple user interface that can be used by both business and technical teams to enter and validate data. It relies solely on developer-built scripts and admin panels to validate data provided by business teams. Development teams may create easier-to-use interfaces, but this takes a long time.
Solution #9 Content Management Systems (CMS)
It is important to recognize the differences between a traditional CMS and headless CMS. A traditional CMS is a software that helps manage the creation, editing, and publishing of digital content, such as text, images, and videos. It provides a user-friendly interface and a set of tools for organizing, storing and distributing the content. By contrast, a headless CMS allows you to manage the content but does not include any built-in presentation layer. Instead, it exposes the content through APIs and it can be consumed by any front-end client. This architecture allows for greater flexibility and scalability, as the front end can be developed independently of the CMS, and the same content can be used across multiple channels.
Safely enables bulk edits, updates, and imports directly into your prod database: The ability of a CMS to safely perform bulk edits, updates, and imports directly into a production database vary depending on the specific CMS and how it is set up. Some CMSs have built-in tools for these actions, but updates are still made directly in production data. Headless CMS in most cases requires even more careful consideration, as developers have to manage corner cases and data validations themselves.
Reduces the need for custom scripts, re(building) admin panels:Using a traditional or headless CMS can reduce the need for custom scripts and rebuilding admin panels in certain cases. A traditional CMS can provide a pre-built administrative interface that can be used out of the box reducing the need for custom code, while a headless CMS allows for more flexibility, but requires more custom development to create easy-to-use interfaces for business users.
Eliminates manual repetitive tasks and constant updating: Both traditional and headless CMS can also help to reduce the need for constant updating by providing a centralized location for managing and organizing content. In some cases, bulk actions are harder to achieve so users may end up manually entering multiple items, or importing from a CSV without proper data validation.
Enhances collaborative efforts to reduce bottlenecks: A traditional CMS typically includes a built-in administrative interface that allows multiple users to access and edit content, and may also include tools for tracking changes and managing permissions. This can make it easier for teams to work together and collaborate on content creation and updates. A headless CMS, on the other hand, can provide a more flexible and customizable way to manage content, as it allows developers to create custom interfaces and workflows that can be tailored to the needs of their team. Additionally, a headless CMS can be integrated with other tools such as project management, version control, and collaboration tools, which can further enhance collaborative efforts.
Offers a simpler user interface to enter and validate data:A traditional CMS typically includes an interface that is designed to be user-friendly and intuitive. Many traditional CMS also have a WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) editor which makes it easy for non-technical users to create and edit content. A headless CMS, on the other hand, provides an API that can be used to interact with the CMS and manage content programmatically. The simplicity of the user interface will depend on the custom interface created by developers, as well as the specific tools and libraries used to interact with the API.