I am becoming increasingly delighted by this web based spreadsheet app, AirTable. At first sight, AirTable was a little overwhelming to me and I could not quite see its use case in my life. Then I started playing with some of the prebuilt templates and things become clear.
AirTable allows users to create Worspaces which are little repositories of databases, which AirTable refers to as bases. A base is kind of like an Excel spreadsheet, only with very colorful, engaging, and customizable fields. Inside a base, you can have multiple databases (which kind of appear at first like sheets within an Excel doc). You can interact with the fields in your databases in a variety of methods beyond just simply typing text into them. You can create a place for an image, a place to add tags, check boxes, and more. One of the things I have been using AirTable to track is coffee that I like. Notice in the image below how colorful and interactive these documents are.
When I first started playing with this, I was floored when I noticed that one of the customizable fields can be set to mirror a record from another database. For example, in my coffee base I can have one database of roasters and another database of coffee. I can create a field in the coffee database called "roasters" that associates the coffee records with the roaster records that they correspond to. Upon this discovery, I realized- this is a relational database 1 for normal people! Cool stuff.
AirTable has unlimited possible use cases. Most of my bases right now are great for tracking information when I need just a little bit more data and organizational power than a note app can handle. Another example of how I am using it is to plan my familie’s travel. Check out my family travel base below. I have one database of cities to visit, another of places to see, and a field to associate the two together. The date, cost, photo, and tagging fields make this a far more interactive and media rich process than writing it down in a note. Not to mention I can keep way more data visible at a time, without being overwhelmed by the clinical style of an Excel style spreadsheet. Did I mention that AirTable is collaborative!? Notice that I share this travel planning base with my wife, who can also add records, edit fields, and more.
My podcast host Craig McClellan has a fantastic overview of AirTable which features a far better description of how it functions conceptually than I am doing justice here. Craig is using this app to track certain elements of his students progress in the classroom, which you will get to hear all about on a coming episode of The Class Nerd podcast. It is really innovative and worth reading about if you want to get a better handle on the app or learn how to automate it.
1 For those of you unfamiliar, a relational database (like FileMaker) is software that allows you to create multiple Excel like spreadsheets that you can link data between. Once you have created meaningful relationships between these different records, you can use tools to build user interface tools overtop this data so that you can interact with it more like an app (with buttons and text fields) rather than like a spreadsheet. Filemaker used to make a simple version of this software for the Mac called Bento which for me struck the perfect balance of this idea. Obviously, not that many felt this way. It was discontinued in 2013.