Eight reasons to switch from Excel to web-based partner reporting

As new programmes, humanitarian response plans and reporting cycles start, humanitarian organizations worldwide need to decide how to manage securely and efficiently the vast amount of information they will be receiving.

As programme achievements and response expectations increase, the role of complete and meaningful data comes into the spotlight. Data reported at all levels, from the field offices to the regional office or the Headquarters, becomes equally crucial to achieve a comprehensive overview.

We have heard various stories from our users who explained how ActivityInfo simplified their work and improved the reporting processes among partner organisations in comparison to using spreadsheets to collect data from the field and the various sectors or offices.

Despite being a powerful tool when analyzing data, spreadsheets have not been built to hold large amounts of data. That is why a more robust system designed for this purpose can benefit an organization working on complex data requirements.

Let’s take a look at how ActivityInfo can help you tackle information management challenges and spreadsheet nightmare scenarios in 2023:

1. Replace duplicate and outdated files with a centralized, real-time database

Use a web-based system for all reporting levels

Sometimes quick decision making can be hindered by lack of updated information from a specific department. Other times you might find it difficult to get to a meaningful conclusion because of fragmented data or duplicate files. Also, trying to find the right file among various versions or making all formats work together can steal valuable time from the daily work of an information management officer. On top of that, if you need to synthesize data coming in from various levels and stakeholders of a programme, bringing together all this data can become a nearly unmanageable task.

Instead of trying to coordinate multiple reporting partners and their files using email and chat applications, you can invite everyone on a single database in ActivityInfo and collect their information in a centralized repository. Everyone can easily access your questionnaires in a user-friendly interface and the data they add will follow a structured format according to the questions and the rules you will specify. Also, as the system is web-based, you will always have access to the latest information available in real-time just by logging in to your account.

Get real-time results as data comes in

To get access to the latest information you might need to get access to the latest version of a file. This can be time-consuming, especially when many stakeholders from various reporting levels are involved. You might find yourself spending more time searching for the latest data or talking to partners about their files’ formatting than actually analyzing the data.

By collecting the same data in an ActivityInfo database, you can create reports such as pivot tables and maps, synthesize and view results in external visualization software and always have the latest analysis in front of you, as your reports will be updated as data is submitted by the reporting partners.

2. Spend time planning ahead instead of cleaning and harmonizing data

Use powerful fields and reference lists for complete lists of predefined answers

Instead of trying to find out which cell is not formatted as a numeric value or capitalizing the names of all cities in a spreadsheet which was just sent to you, you can use the various fields available in ActivityInfo to define exactly what kind of information you want to collect. You can create reference lists and sublists from which reporting partners can easily choose their answers and create cascading lists of options.

Geodatabase for locations lists

When collecting locations related to geography, such as provinces, villages, etc., misspelled words can create duplicate entries and this can lead to further confusion when viewing or analyzing data at a higher level. ActivityInfo offers a rich, built-in geodatabase which you can reference in your forms to make sure that nobody types in a location name again.

Relevance and Validation rules for complete control over the data entered

Sometimes there are questions that are not relevant to all reporting partners. When these questions are visible to them, this can create confusion and delays in reporting as they might start searching for information they believe they are expected to possess. Creating a separate questionnaire just for these users creates unnecessary additional files and requires additional validation and synthesis effort from the IMO side. In ActivityInfo, you can simply add Relevance rules to a question to define when it should appear to a user based on a previous answer. This means that you can collect all data from all partners in the same table without confusing them during the data entry process.

At the same time, data that are not valid should not be accepted as answers. In spreadsheets, validation rules can be limited or complicated to set up. In ActivityInfo, every question can be accompanied by one or multiple validation rules to make sure that the data entered always follows the logic of your data collection requirements.

3. Avoid nasty data limit surprises

Millions of records, hundreds of forms

Spreadsheets have a limit on the cells, (or columns and rows) that can be added per file. In some cases, when too many cells are filled in, the spreadsheet becomes ‘heavy’ to use and requires time to load and show results. ActivityInfo is a robust information management system that has been created to handle such large amounts of data and will not limit you in terms of the records you can add or upload.

No storage limit

Online spreadsheet applications may come with a storage limit which when surpassed there are additional charges to be able to add more files. Offline storage depends on your device storage but might also be limiting as you need to maintain folders and files with the latest data as well as backups and older versions to keep track of the history of the data. ActivityInfo doesn’t have a storage limit; you can import or add all your data in one place and work in a centralized ‘data warehouse’.

4. Don’t accept limitations on your data collection efforts

Mobile data collection

The challenges in data collection processes shouldn’t be underestimated. Data entry officers need to be able to collect and submit data whenever that is suitable for them and your data collection system should facilitate the process for them. Being able to use a user-friendly and accessible interface using any device they have available is crucial for their work. Spreadsheets are not an ideal solution for heavy data collection when an officer is in the field. Mobile data collection applications that have been designed with these requirements in mind are suitable instead. ActivityInfo can be used in desktop, laptops and tablets and a mobile application is available to make mobile data collection even easier on the smaller screens of mobile phones.

Offline data collection

Lack of internet connectivity should not hinder the data collection process. Working offline and syncing files when online should be as easy and intuitive as possible for the data entry officer and should mitigate the risk of losing data in the in-between stage. Some spreadsheet programmes are offline or can be used offline. ActivityInfo was designed from the very beginning to address this specific challenge and offers offline availability for data entry both for desktop and mobile data collection. Data is automatically synced once internet connectivity is restored so there is no need to upload files or to remember to sync offline data.

5. Forget the data loss and data security anxiety

Data recovery

Mitigating the risk of data loss is a crucial element in information management and finding a strategy for that when using spreadsheets can become another time consuming task for IMOs. In ActivityInfo, we use the Google Cloud Platform (GCP) to host data. Data is stored in multiple locations in servers located in Europe where strict physical security is implemented to ensure that your data is always backed up and secure. Additionally, with a simple click you can retrieve deleted records on your own.

Data security practices, SSO and user permissions

At the same time, ensuring that your data is secure and accessed only by authorized users is another important element in an information management strategy. Data security is of paramount importance for us so we follow best field practices and we offer features such as Single Sign-On and refined user permissions to help you handle and refine users’ access on your own. Read more about data security in ActivityInfo.

6. Replace sheets and documents locks with intelligent time-based locking

Locking based on reporting periods

When a reporting period ends you should be able to have a good control over the actions that reporting partners have so as to maintain untampered data and a complete picture of the situation. In ActivityInfo, you can create locks for forms or subforms and lock data entry for specific time periods. This way, if the reporting period has ended, you can ask partners to contact you when a change to data is needed and you can learn more about the context of the change.

7. Reduce time spent asking for clarifications of who did what

Complete audit log on users actions

In some cases, detecting who applied a change on a spreadsheet is time consuming or is not available as an option in a spreadsheet application. ActivityInfo offers a complete audit log so that you can track all user actions in a database and easily detect data changes or suspicious activity.

Complete history log for every added record

Instead of maintaining many files of older versions of your data in your storage or browsing back to changes on an online spreadsheet you can simply view a history log for every single record. This way you can quickly understand when data was changed, what kind of change took place and which user did the change.

8. Replace time-consuming ‘Google’ searches with our expert support

Customized support, Webinars, User Guides for quick problem solving

There are many forums and communities dedicated to answering questions related to spreadsheets and this is what makes spreadsheets so popular to work with. However, when time is of the essence browsing through various answers to find the one that matches your case can be a stressful experience. In ActivityInfo, you will always have our expert team to answer your questions and help you out when you are stuck. In addition, we offer plenty of frequent and free webinars to help you keep updated with the latest features and we create original content addressing questions coming from our users.

Customer success specialist for personalized advice

When working with a spreadsheet software you can hire consulting companies or individuals to help you out and advise you on best practices. In ActivityInfo, we want to ensure your success so we offer personalized support and advice sessions to help you bring out the best of your work.

Do you want to try ActivityInfo for your programmes? You can get started right away with a Free Trial or contact us for more information.

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