Report from the SPSSI Central Office
SPSSI’s Membership Database: A Great (but not perfect) Asset
By Susan Dudley, Executive Director
Giant strides toward improving the scope and usability of the SPSSI membership database have been made over the years, so that today it is one of our most technologically sophisticated and useful tools.
When we initially converted to electronic storage of our membership records, we relied on a software system that was developed by a SPSSI staff member. Inevitably, it grew over the years to be too expensive and cumbersome for staff without specialized expertise to manage. That problem was corrected in 2007 when our data were transferred to a more functional system operated by an outside vendor. This increased our user options, but there were still some disadvantages in terms of data retrieval limitations and cost. So in 2008 we brought the database back in-house – but this time we’ve hosted it on a specialized commercial software platform that is fully documented and integrated with our website. It is user-friendly so that even non-technologically-oriented staff can use it to advantage. We have access to great tech support and a software vendor who is always working with his clients to improve the product.
The value of such a robust, centralized database is manifold. We now have the ability to document and access each member’s organizational history – whether they joined in 1959 or in 2009 – keeping detailed records on dues and donations, journal subscription preferences, service to SPSSI, research and policy interests, and affiliations with sister organizations. All this and more is accessible at the click of a mouse, allowing us to operate much more efficiently than in the past. In addition, our members can access much of the database (either through the membership directory on our website, or by working with our staff to run more complex queries), and this multiplies its value many times over.
Yet in spite of the enormous advantages that our current database confers, it is not perfect. For one thing, keeping a database of living, working, moving people up-to-date is a Sisyphean task. For another, each time data are migrated from one software platform to another (three times in the last three years), new errors can be introduced: data fields may be added or lost, incorrectly populated, or inadequately translated between systems. So, just as it is essential for a researcher to recognize and acknowledge the limitations of a given experimental design, it is also essential for users of the membership database to understand its limitations. For example:
Missing data: The SPSSI database includes scores of primary data fields for thousands of people. We rely on our members to provide the data to populate many of those fields. Sometimes they don’t give us complete information, and since the fields that one member omits don’t usually predict the fields that the next member will omit, the result can be an irregular patchwork of information.
Duplicate data: Neither software nor staff can reliably determine whether Mary Doe is the same person as Mary Jane Doe. Or that John Smith the graduate student and John Smith the Assistant Professor are one and the same SPSSI member. Or whether Bill Smith is really a lapsed member or is an obsolete duplicate of William Smith who faithfully pays his annual membership dues.
Discrepant data: Synchronizing data on those members who are affiliated with both SPSSI and APA is a special problem. In spite of concerted efforts to get APA and SPSSI Division 9 membership and Division 9 Fellows lists to match up, there are always discrepancies. For example, some people include an extra $2 to join Division 9 when they pay their APA dues, but never follow up with SPSSI at all. Conversely, some APA members join SPSSI, but never communicate that to APA. Or a member death might be reported to one organization but not the other. When information in the APA system is different from the information in the SPSSI system, it’s a coin toss to guess which one is correct.
In spite of such problems, the value of the database to SPSSI’s operations far outweighs the limitations. Because much of the data we’re trying to capture and preserve in the membership database are subject to regular change, a significant amount of staff time is spent on efforts to track down and correct errors – when emails bounce, or journals are undeliverable, or an APA membership report is at variance from ours.
And on those occasions when we know that our database is delivering something short of the accuracy we’d like, I take comfort in remembering a conversation I recently had with one of our vendors – a major high tech IT firm whose spam-protection service SPSSI subscribes to. Months after I had renewed our service online, I was still getting regular email reminders to renew. When their reminders escalated to phone calls warning me that our service had expired, I tried again – more than a little exasperated – to explain that we had, in fact, long-since renewed. Their response? “Oh, we’re so sorry for the mix-up! We just can’t seem to keep our database up to date!”
So SPSSI is not alone in the fight to make an inherently imperfect technology work better. But if every member who reads this column will take a few minutes to log on to www.spssi.org and update their member profile, we’ll be that much closer to our goal – at least until somebody moves!