How a Biodiversity Informatics Expert Is Helping Protect Brazil’s Plants with Grist’s Relational Spreadsheets

Organization. Rio de Janeiro Botanical Garden Research Institute

Creator. Eduardo Dalcin, Ph.D., Biodiversity Informatics

To Conserve a Species, You Need Data About Its Caretakers

Eduardo Dalcin, Ph.D. works at the Rio de Janeiro Botanical Garden Research Institute, which falls under the authority of Brazil’s Ministry of the Environment. One of his many responsibilities is to prospect new technologies that could be applied to biodiversity and conservation problems.

The research institute maintains a master list of over 50,000 Brazilian plants, and performs risk assessments of endangered flora. The list, built between 2005 and 2010, contributed to the Global Strategy for Plant Conservation (GSPC), a 16 point plan adopted by the United Nation’s Convention on Biological Diversity. During that time, the research institute received thousands of spreadsheets from hundreds of taxonomists. Each spreadsheet was exported from different tools and had different naming conventions.

Looking at this massive influx of data, Eduardo saw the opportunity to answer the question, “Who is expert in, and responsible for, which groups of plants?” If he could answer that question, he could have a clearer picture of which plant groups are being studied and looked after by botanists, and which need extra attention. Using the power of Grist’s relational spreadsheet, Eduardo set out to answer that question.

Relating Botanists to Plants and Each Other, in a No-code Relational Spreadsheet

For his first Grist use case, he started compiling a database of expert botanists to better understand in which plant groups Brazil had the greatest expertise. The list contains 900 botanists and their specializations, as well as their educational information. For each expert, Eduardo captures their graduate and post-graduate schools, and their supervisors and students.

Eduardo summarizes this ever-growing database in charts and graphs that let him easily see which universities and schools are graduating the most advanced degree botanists, and in which categories. This is important because in order to hit GSPC targets for all endangered plant groups, the Coordination for Flora and Fungi of Brazil must know of any knowledge gaps that might exist. Eduardo’s charts also summarize botanists by employment and degree type, and other helpful measures.

Taking his data analysis a step further, and using his experience with graph visualization in other projects, Eduardo also assigned special generated codes to the supervisor-student relationships in his database. He exported that data from Grist to Gephi, a graph visualization tool, to create an interactive map of professional expert relationships. This graph gives him a high level view of which professionals in which specialties are contributing the most to Brazil’s botanical knowledge transfer. Eduardo is also using Neo4j, a graph oriented database, to explore the data and its relationships.

Grist is amazing for me because I can gather data from different sources, organize it, and prepare that data to eventually feed another tool, such as Gephi and Neo4j, to do a different analysis. This is a very nice thing.

Eduardo Dalcin
Using’s Grist’s relational spreadsheets, Eduardo was able to map experts’ professional relationships and visualize them in other tools.

Embedding Grist Relational Spreadsheets in Brazil’s other conservation efforts

Having had great success with Grist, Eduardo wanted to help others like him adopt the tool. The research institute also hosts The National School of Tropical Botany which offers Ph.D. and Masters courses. Eduardo teaches biodiversity information management at the school, and introduced Grist to his students to help them organize and analyze data from their field work.

Using relational spreadsheets to present post-graduate field work!
Using relational spreadsheets to present post-graduate field work!

People are in their comfort zone using spreadsheets. I am trying to show them that if they spend some time learning a new tool they’ll have more power to do their work and research. I said to one of my students, “You will be very very happy using Grist because you are miserable using Excel!”

Eduardo Dalcin

Eduardo also works regularly with analysts and coordinators at the Ministry of Environment. He is currently using Grist to help the Ministry build a data standard to consolidate data from different sources that will be used for prioritizing conservation actions for plants and animals.

Biodiversity and conservation always motivates me to understand and organize data for analysis to get relevant insights.

Eduardo Dalcin

MissionSource didn’t know it had a data problem, until Grist fixed it

Company. MissionSource Digital Marketing
Creator. Chris Scott, Co-owner and Director of Strategy

Taming the data organization mess

MissionSource is a boutique digital marketing agency with 8 full-time employees and a handful of regular contractors. They specialize in paid advertising, SEO, and marketing analytics. Prior to finding Grist, MissionSource used Stackby and Google Sheets for internal data visualization and management. By integrating Google Sheets with Stackby, MissionSource could force a relational structure on their spreadsheet data.

However, they could not move fully away from Google Sheets, because data entry in Stackby was too limited by the product’s layouts. Stackby’s UI lacked the flexibility of a spreadsheet. Though working in Google Sheets had its problems, too. The spreadsheets were scattered across many folders, and sometimes the same data had many copies. Still, the unconventional data flow worked — or so they thought.

MissionSource’s co-owner and Director of Strategy, Chris Scott, likes software and is always game to try something new. He found Grist on AppSumo and decided to give it a try. After importing his data to Grist, he immediately saw what it solved: data organization. Their internal data was messy. The Stackby-Google Sheets solution was generating more mess, not less. Grist shined a light on that problem and offered a great solution.

Data visualization for the agency and their clients

Mission Source started off by using Grist to track the time employees spent on projects. Chris liked that it was a source of truth that could be built collaboratively, with everyone seeing the same data. His co-owner liked that he could use Grist to build a business dashboard that gave him a detailed view of which market segments yielded the best leads that converted for the agency.

What I like about Grist the most is its focus. It appears simple, but it’s very powerful in a focused way. There’s a lot of Grist competitors like Airtable and Stackby that are messy and distracting which is why I never used them consistently.

chris scott

As a digital marketing agency, MissionSource already uses many marketing tools that generate a lot of data. With Grist, Chris could export data from those tools and build a more centralized picture. For example, Chris uses Grist to track SEO rankings and meta tags in a layout that makes sense for his workflow.

On the client-side, Grist transformed paid advertising data from clients’ campaigns into insightful charts and reports that drill into the data in new and illuminating ways.

MissionSource digital marketing uses Grist for data visualization, analysis, and processing.
MissionSource digital marketing uses Grist for data visualization, analysis, and processing.

Grist as a data processor

Chris has also built a series of data cleaning processes in Grist. His templates take data from marketing tools, then clean and transform the data into lists which can be used in other marketing campaigns. He also imports data from cold callers and sales representatives to extract valuable insights in a simple, but powerful and fast tool.

I consider Grist a no code data analysis platform. All spreadsheet data is going into Grist, because it’s really the only tool that makes it easy to compile all this data and transform it into something I can export to complete other tasks either in other Grist docs or in another marketing tool.

Chris Scott

How a Law Firm Built a Custom CRM That Met Their Needs

Company. Leavitt & Eldredge Law Firm
Creator. Jennifer Bledsoe, IT Tech & Graphic Designer

One-size-fits-all law practice software did not fit all

Leavitt & Eldredge practices patents, trademarks, and business law in the United States and abroad. Their work generates a lot of data about customers and matters, and billing requires particular workflows. All of this data is interconnected, and many team members interact with this data on a daily basis. In order for the firm to perform efficiently, everyone must have access to up-to-date, accurate data.

The firm had tried specialty software such as PracticePanther to tame its growing data needs, but the software was too restrictive. Like most specialty software, its layout dictated how business data should be organized. Like many small businesses, Leavitt & Eldredge’s unique data workflows could not fit in a one-size-fits-all solution. They needed a simple, custom CRM that empowered the firm to work on their terms.

The hunt for the custom CRM unicorn

That’s when Jennifer Bledsoe, the firm’s IT tech, set out to find a solution that could serve as a single source of truth for data. The CRM had to be flexible enough to meet different stakeholders’ workflows. If the tool could also be simple for Jennifer to get started with, that was a huge plus, because she only had a few months to get this done.

Jennifer looked at over 50 no-code CRM builders, including Monday.com. Because she was under a time crunch, she began migrating her data to Monday.com even though she was struggling to customize its UI to meet her team’s needs.

That’s when she found Grist, and with only a month until her deadline, she hoped this was the one.

When I tried Grist I was like “No way it can’t be this easy.” But it was!

Jennifer Bledsoe

Jennifer imported her data into Grist and quickly built a working CRM application. The CRM tied matters and litigation data to clients in drag-and-drop dashboards that linked and surfaced data in an intuitive way. Soon she had something the firm’s staff could use in their daily workflows.

Sample screenshot of Jennifer's custom CRM build in Grist.
Invoice management is just one part of the firm’s custom CRM.

Building a custom CRM in Grist was just the beginning

Because Grist is flexible and extendable, Jennifer built other functions on top of the CRM, such as a billing and invoicing system, and a way to track funds in IOLTA accounts. Originally, Leavitt & Eldredge had bought PracticePanther to manager billing and fund tracking. But after running into PracticePanther’s limitations, Jennifer was relieved to discover that Grist handled that data just as well, while also tying those functions into custom workflows seamlessly.

To Jennifer, what set Grist apart from other no-code databases was its granular access rules, custom page layouts, and custom widgets. With drag-and-drop page layouts, she could design the application the way the firm’s staff works.

And because Leavitt & Eldredge handles sensitive data, Jennifer used granular access permissions to restrict who can see or edit which data. She also used access rules to set logic that locks records that are no longer editable to create an immutable historical record.

Most CRMs don’t work the way Grist works. Grist’s layouts are simple and do exactly what we need.

Jennifer Bledsoe

Custom widgets empowered Jennifer to streamline other aspects of their workflow, too. For example, she built a custom widget that generates invoices with unique “pay now” links. Staff can export an invoice as a PDF, send it to a client, and then the client can follow the unique link to the firm’s online payment portal with key information prefilled in the payment form.

A sample invoice generated in the custom CRM using relational data, and a formula.
Invoices are generated in the custom CRM using relational data, and a formula.

You’re a life saver. I cannot express enough the difference it has made. And while your software is amazing, you also have the most incredible customer service. I was put on the spot. I had a month to get this done and I needed help. Customer service came through.

Jennifer Bledsoe

Today, Leavitt & Eldredge’s attorneys and administrative staff use the CRM on a daily basis. Each of their workflows is captured in easy to use dashboards that make it possible to find and update data with a click, all in one database that serves as a single source of truth.

Why a City Guides App Needed an Open Source Spreadsheet

Industry. Publications, Personalize City Guides

Creator. Stephen S., Owner

Shifting to a relational, open source spreadsheet

Stephen is the founder of OurQuietPlaces, a website and app in-development that will help busy urbanites find moments of respite and cultural enrichment. He and his team manage a lot of data such as statistics, geolocated records, reference images, and maps. Stephen designs and maintains the company’s data infrastructure, which is necessary for his team’s research and publication work.

For the app’s core data, he had found a system he liked using technical tools, databases, and applications self-hosted on several Linux servers. While that stack met his tech-forward needs, the rest of the team needed an easy-to-use, flexible and collaborative data tool to handle inventories, worksheets, publishing plans, and more. It wouldn’t be cost or time effective for Stephen to build GUIs on the hosted database to meet those needs. Members of the team needed to be empowered to create and edit their own documents.

The spreadsheet made sense, but quickly ran into problems. It was unstructured, there was no way to relate data in different tables, and complicated sheets became a nightmare to modify and share. Then he tried Airtable for its relational-spreadsheet hybrid approach. It worked well, but was expensive. Worse yet, when Stephen tried to move data off of Airtable, the experience was painful. Because data could only be exported as CSV tables, they lost their relational structure. Further, some data types did not convert well, leading to data loss. He spent days piecing it all back together.

In a crowded field, Grist was the clear winner

The more I use Grist, the more I LOVE it. I have been surveying self-hosted database GUI tools, and I was consistently disappointed with their shortcomings or bugginess. Grist is the first to have tilted the balance the other way.

Stephen S.

Burned by a bad experience, Stephen looked for a spreadsheet-database product that would not sequester company data, was easy to use, robust, and low cost. If it could be self-hosted, all the better. He tried dozens of startup products such as Retool and nocoDB, but rejected all those tools either because they were buggy, limited in features, or increased his database overhead. His exhaustive research led him to Grist, which met and exceeded his expectations for an open source spreadsheet.

Specifically, here’s what I love about Grist:

  • It is open source and self-hostable using Docker.
  • It is opinionated, providing a totally new way to manage data that is quite disruptive, but convincing, even for database specialists.
  • Thanks to Grist’s use of SQLite, data is portable and not sequestered.
  • It is modest. Grist keeps it simple and does what it does superlatively.
  • It requires only a soft learning curve with lots of potential to dig deeper with outstanding documentation.

Stephen S.

Today, OurQuietPlaces uses grist-core, the open source version of Grist, to manage its data and hardware inventory, technical infrastructure (hosted apps, storage), publication schedule and writers’ assignments. Grist has been a key tool for this remote team of four who needed a real collaboration tool that made sharing easy.

Grist, a Hacker Friendly Spreadsheet

VisiCalc screenshot from history-computer.com.

Spreadsheets attract people with a hacker mindset, since they reward a little technical curiosity with a big jump in capability. Despite that, while there are some open source spreadsheet projects, most of the action is closed source (Excel, Airtable, Honeycode, etc). Grist is a solid, modern, powerful spreadsheet that fits well into the open-source ecology, and is as friendly to hacker-developers as it is to hacker-users. Here are some reasons why.

Grist borrows visually from classic spreadsheets and modern dashboards, with every view backed by relational data, filtered and linked with other views as needed. Grist takes care of the data, and keeping it live, so custom views are easy to add if you need something new, using standard HTML/JS/CSS. For example, live-updating invoicesmailing labelsgoat pedigreesexoplanet birthday card, or morse code quizzer that look just how you want them.

Grist is a self-contained format, based on SQLite. Grist tables are literally SQLite tables, which opens up all sorts of possibilities. For example, I can take a Grist example investment spreadsheet and publish it using Simon Willison’s datasette as a Glitch remix without any conversion steps needed. This is a step up from exporting CSV.

Grist uses python as its formula language. Python has a good standard library, nice syntax for working with lists, and is a favorite of data scientists. Grist itself is written in TypeScript, with formula evaluation isolated in a sandbox

The Grist format makes it easy to find the most recent common ancestor of two versions of a document, facilitating three-way comparisons and git-style revision control. When working on a Grist spreadsheet with someone, you can use real-time collaborative editing – or you may sometimes prefer to “fork” your spreadsheet, make a set of changes, compare them with the original and then land them back. We’re excited to flesh this workflow out, and I think any programmer can see where we’re going with it.

Grist code is available at github.com/gristlabs/grist-core under a standard free and open source licence (Apache 2.0). Grist software is developed by Grist Labs, which offers free and paid hosting plans. Whether you choose us to host your spreadsheets, or to run Grist yourself, you have the comfort of knowing the developers have revenue (so they won’t one day vanish in the morning sun like an elusive gleam of dew on a flower), and you have the code and your data (ditto).

“Fiddle” sites are very handy for communicating and learning about a technology. I know I learned a lot about javascript by playing with this 30-line implemention of a spreadsheet: https://jsfiddle.net/ondras/hYfN3/. Grist supports fiddles almost by accident, because you can use Grist without logging in, and you can quickly edit a “fork” of a spreadsheet without changing your original. Here, try fiddling with one of our examples. You won’t break it.

Grist supports attachments, and those attachments can be downloaded as part of a single Grist file format. Grist has solid undo/redo support. Hosted Grist makes automatic backups at hourly, daily, monthly, and yearly intervals. Grist has an API and a Zapier integration. Grist supports real time collaboration. Grist supports many Excel functions. We publish a Grist docker image (see the README), and have an unreleased standalone app for Windows/Mac/Linux that we’ll be bringing up to date.

Plimpton 322 tablet image from wikipedia.org.

Spreadsheets have evolved a lot since Babylonian times. In open-source, Gnumeric and Calc are venerable standalone Excel replacements. LuckySheet is a shot at a clone of that standalone experience in the browser. Ethercalc is a real-time collaborative spreadsheet, developed by Audrey Tang, now Taiwan’s Digital Minister, extending work they did with Dan Bricklin on SocialCalc. Evolving further, hybrid spreadsheet-database models are growing in usefulness and popularity. That’s what Grist is, and we are pleased to bring it now to the open-source community.

Spreadsheets have a long tail of features that are “must haves” for someone out there. We think a quality, open code base is a big help for realizing those features, and having peace of mind in relying on them. Just as Babylonian clay tablets were, we hope that Grist will prove a sturdy data storage and presentation infrastructure that can survive for years (if not centuries!) to come.

Come play with hosted Grist, or explore and build Grist source code. In either case, we’d be grateful for your feedback at @getgrist or support@getgrist.com!

Paul Fitzpatrick

Paul Fitzpatrick, CTO

Dmitry Sagalovskiy

Dmitry Sagalovskiy, CEO