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Mark Bowley
posted on
February 8, 2020
challenge

I recently noticed a team member from a design client of mine was gathering a niche list of event venues on a Twitter thread. I thought to myself there must be a much better, longer term way of doing it with simple digital tools. An idea was conceived and I volunteered to build a website directory.

As a bit of background, I've done design work for many UK charity sector organisations over the last 10 years. When organising their own events, organisations in the sector naturally prefer the costs to go to non-profits. The venues we're talking about in this directory are different in that they're all run by good causes. Therefore, by hiring these venues rather than commercial venues, you are actively benefitting a social purpose of some kind. This project appealed to me as I like the idea of creating products and tools with technology which benefit other people indirectly, not just the immediate user.

“I like the idea of creating products and tools with technology which benefit other people indirectly, not just the immediate user.”

Back to the project. What I realised was that although I had about 40 venues in London to start with, there was likely to be many, many more across the city, and the country. It could end up being a big ongoing project, so I had some very specific aims in building the directory.

First, aiming to keep costs to a minimum, I avoided tool costs and subscriptions as far as I could.

Second, I wanted the data to be easy to access, not stuck in a CMS somewhere. I decided to store it in a spreadsheet, for various reasons: I may want the flexibility to change the technology in the future; time spent on data entry needed to be minimal; and I may want to make the whole data set available at some point, in an accessible format.

The tools used
• Google Sheets is where the directory data is stored.
Awesome Table is used to turn it into both a 'card' style list and a map.
Carrd is the website, with the list and map embedded as iframes.

None of that currently costs any money (although it is using my Pro account on Carrd) and only Awesome Table requires a bit of code (just a few lines).

Having tried using Airtable first, I wasn't happy that you can't embed it as a map view. I also wanted to use something like sheet2site.com which is perfect, but it would have meant quite a pricey monthly bill. It's a shame they don't have a cheaper or free option for limited use.

I'm aware the visual design or user experience could be better. Partly that's because it's an MVP so far, just to see what could be done. Also I deliberately avoided using a popular CMS like WordPress as I could get stuck manually entering endless data as the directory expands. I've not yet spent much time in Webflow, so I'm not sure if that could be used in the future instead.

It could also do with more information for each venue, or a photo. However this would take more research (time), and photos would stray into copyright issues.

Semi-automated additions
With the spreadsheet option, I've been able to put in place a semi-automated system for adding new data. People can suggest new venues one at a time via a Google Form, which adds rows to an identical spreadsheet. I've also created a template spreadsheet where people can send me bulk entries. The plan is to give these a check over at intervals, then simply copy the rows into the master sheet.

Response & learnings
As a non-commercial side project, I've not publicised it much yet. I launched it via a tweet in the middle of the week, where it got a very positive response from the UK charity community. Many have suggested making it a national directory, or joining forces. But there's no hurry. The quality and integrity of the data is important, rather than allowing lots of people to work on it or expanding rapidly.

“Aiming to keep costs to a minimum, I avoided tool costs and subscriptions as far as I could.”

Overall I'm pleased with what I've created with limited time and resources so far. One thing I've definitely noticed from this is how it's harder to make a simple, low-cost website directory, compared to making on as an app. I could have made this in no time with Glide, but I felt it needed to be a website first, not an app first. I'd love to see Glide add an option for a full-sized website, so you can make both a mobile and a web app from one Google Sheet.

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