Why a city guides app needed an open source spreadsheet

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.