Tech post: My database decision

12 03 2009

The most popular post on my blog isn’t anything to do with my life here in Ghana, VSO or international development. It’s this post I wrote when I hadn’t been here long discussing what technology to use to develop a database for my partner organisation. In fact it’s by far and away the most popular thing on this blog (3,340 views compared to the next best which has only received 290 views), which is mildly depressing. It spawned a bit of a debate and what was probably one of the best comments I’ve received (from by big brother)

Anyway I thought I’d update the situation now that the database is operational. I ended up going with MS Access for a number of reasons, the key one being that I’ve got a fair bit of experience with it and even more with VBA. Another was that the run-time issue faded into irrelevance here in Ghana where it’s almost impossible to buy legitimate copies of software, but pirate versions abound. This means that almost everyone has a dodgy copy of the full Office suite so I needn’t have worried. In effect all software is freeware.

Normally I disapprove of pirate software (after all as a professional programmer I rely on people paying for what I produce) but there aren’t any shops selling legitimate versions and if they were it would cost several whole number multiples of my monthly allowance (which is noticeably more than a teacher or some of my colleagues earn). Downloading requires a decent internet link and credit card, one is almost impossible and the other unheard of here. Even the “Academic” version costs several hundred pounds – at least twice my allowance. Imagine Office costing 5 or 6 thousand pounds. Since all the international NGOs and donors require Office format reports Microsoft have made themselves simultaneously indispensable and unobtainable. Clearly the circle was going to get squared.

Another reason for choosing MS Access is that as a skill to handover the reality (sadly) is that MS Office and its components are probably here to stay for a while. This means that ISODEC are more likely to find someone who knows a bit of Access and VBA than they are to find anyone who knows Open Office, plus the guy in my office who wants to learn about databases wants to learn Access.

And Access is actually an extremely good tool for what it’s designed for; small but rich databases. Simple one dimensional blocks of data can be analysed with Excel (perhaps using the auto-filter option) while huge amounts of data are best dealt with by “industrial” databases like Oracle, but where you have data about half a dozen or some related things, with a few thousand items of each Access is perfect and relatively easy to use. Conceptually it’s probably the hardest of the Office Suite, but if you’ve a basic idea of database theory it’s fine. Access lets you simply easily build tables, relationships, queries and forms that can create a reasonably complex application.

I did have a play with Base, but I didn’t find it intuitive enough and the database engine that comes with it is a bit limited. I know I could have installed MySQL, but in an organisation where the ability to add a column of numbers in Excel was viewed as an incredible step forward I felt that expecting them to reinstall MySQL every time the PC hosting gets rebuilt (a bit of a knee-jerk reaction to the continuous virus infections).




One response

12 03 2009

Yep, I have to agree with your decision on MS Access. Although, I’d love to find a replacement, it just seems to be the right choice.

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