Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Past Perfect Conversion

Post by:   Judith Wheeler
                 Collections Inventory Volunteer / Database Specialist
This year, the WCMFA is going operational with PastPerfect museum software.  After years of using a small, site-specific application developed in MS Access, later updated to an Access front-end and SQL backend, the museum had become limited in its ability to collect different types of information and to exploit that information effectively.  The museum faced the decision of whether to embark on a substantial development effort to expand the existing application with respect to data architecture and business rules or convert to a commercial museum application (i.e. PastPerfect) that would incorporate standard museum nomenclature, workflow and business practices.   A solid business case was made for change and funds for the software, documentation and technical support were acquired.

The idea of converting from one system that limiting as it had become, was a known quantity, vice converting data critical to the museum’s daily operations was daunting.  After spending some time familiarizing ourselves with the new environment utilizing PastPerfect’s downloadable evaluation software, we were ready to proceed with laying out a step-by-step approach for our conversion process.   Because WCMFA had received IMLS grant funding for inventorying our collection, we focused on the collections-oriented data first with the contacts/development data to follow.

From the outset, the project was set as a museum priority for staff.  Our team would consist of museum staff who are part of the collections management process and a volunteer board member with a background in IT and specifically database development and conversion.  Because of the “in-house” expertise, we were able to minimize consulting or outsourced hours.  Not only was this a financial factor, but additionally, it provided a means for staff to increase their depth of understanding regarding their data and technical environment and be more empowered in the future.

Our work at hand was broken down into manageable pieces, taking a step-by-step approach that would allow us to validate the data as we went along, see demonstrable progress, minimize museum staff time (since everyone still had all their museum responsibilities), and build confidence in the process and eventual outcome.  In a nutshell, here’s what we did:

1) Developed a data mapping from the “source” environment to the “target” environment.  This validated that everything in our “source” dataset would have a home in the “target”.  This also identifed “type mismatches” that would require some technical conversion work to be done.

2) Took a “cut” of the data for analysis.  In this step we exported data from the SQL backend and imported it into a separate Access database for manipulation to identify issues with the data itself that might require research or cleanup to make eventual conversion easier.  This step required the most involvement from the collections management staff since it is in this step that a technical “eye” saw patterns or anomalies that required collections staff analysis and resolution.

3) Resolved conversion data issues.  This was fundamentally a technical task that, for the most part, involved a) fixing date fields so they would be in the required format and b) concatenating text fields where the “target” used one field and our “source” had multiple fields.

4) Tested data import into PastPerfect.  Because we had been able to resolve the data issues in-house, we took another cut of the data (day-to-day work had been proceeding), reconciled that data and decided to see what “our data” looked like in PastPerfect.  What happiness when the right number of records were imported!  Even greater happiness when everything looked correct! 

5) Shipped our data off to PastPerfect for a few final touches.  Their technical staff performed a few steps on data import not available to us through the application and shipped our complete, validated dataset back to us.

So here we are in the Fall of 2012 with our collections management staff for several months now using PastPerfect for their inventory task and we’re moving on to our Contacts/Development module. We’ve already imported a cut of our Contacts into PastPerfect and are identifying the anomalies in the data.  (It’s amazing how many different kinds of things people can put in a title field!).  We can’t wait for the increased capabilities PastPerfect will give us in managing our contacts, donations, listings and mailings.   Stay tuned!

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