One of the tasks I have as an informationist on the study team is to help improve communication. In fact, it’s Aim #1 in the proposal we wrote to the National Library of Medicine for the grant: “Develop tools to improve data specification and communication.” For most of the past month or so, I’ve been working on a data request form. Back and forth and back and forth we go with iterations of it. Last week, it finally went through a test-drive as one of the principal investigators used it to request several analyses from our analyst. (Isn’t it convenient for an analyst that s/he does analyses? So clear. An analyst analyzes. A librarian… librarianizes? We should be so lucky.) It’s back in my hands now to make a few more tweaks based upon her feedback, but it’s coming along nicely. Hopefully, it will become a well-used tool in the future, making the communication of statistical analyses between requester and analyst more efficient.
As I sat in on yesterday’s meeting, I heard in the conversation another area where a tool would help improve communication between team members. Much of the history of this study can be found in email correspondence. Often, someone will say something like, “I remember that we changed such and such to so and so back in 2010,” and the indication is that somewhere in the virtual mound of emails of 2010, there exists documentation of this change. Everyone remembers the email, the discussions during team meetings, the outcome, etc. but the details are sometimes lacking. When it comes to writing articles, however, a lot of these details become very important pieces of information needed to describe exactly what happened and when. I began to wonder if we had a searchable archive of all of the email involved in the study, would it be a useful tool for the team. I posed the question later in the afternoon (via an email, of course!) and heard back from several people that they agreed.
To figure out how to accomplish this task, I began searching for things like communication log software, email exporters, and tools for Outlook. I also revisited Zoho Creator to see how and if it could work to create a database for these things. Basically, my thinking was to export pertinent fields like date, sender, and body of the email; index them (using tags); and make them searchable. Then, if someone was curious about the development of the phone counseling system, s/he could do a search for “MCRS” in all of the emails and receive a nice, chronological report of everything communicated about the process during the software development. “This is good!” I thought.
I set to work downloading the add-on tool for Outlook that I decided on, Code Two Outlook Export. It was pretty straightforward, no hiccups or frustrations. Then I practiced exporting the “Informationist” folder in my email inbox. The export gave me a csv file that I then opened in Excel. I didn’t get exactly what I wanted, so I tried a few other export field options until it looked right. At this point though, I could tell there will be a good bit of cleanup to do in the Excel file. We have a lot of stuff in the body of emails – stuff that runs all together in an Excel cell. I decided to delete content in the body of the emails that was irrelevant and/or redundant. This helped a lot. Once I had the spreadsheet the way I wanted it, I then uploaded it into a new application in Zoho Creator, did some more tweaking here and there, and eventually got something that worked!
Admit it. It’s always a rush when you create something, isn’t it?
I sent some screen shots to the team members and asked for feedback. Already I’ve heard from several who think it’s a great idea! It will take some doing to collect and cleanup several years of emails related to the study from everyone involved, but I think it will be a real help. Also, the system will be in place for future studies. As a matter of fact, I already have laid out in my mind how I can use this with the new CER group that I’m going to be embedded in soon. As their email list is fairly new, it will be a much easier start-up.
If you decide to try either of these tools – or if you’ve instituted a similar email archive to help with communication within a group – I hope you’ll share your experience in the comments section here. It will be great to hear what works for others.