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Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Relational Database Workshop

The next workshop in the WGSA Workshop Series, led by Dr. Bryan Nuse, will focus on relational databases. This should be a great workshop for anyone working with large data sets, or looking to develop marketable skills for post-graduation endeavors.

October 14th, at 4:00pm in room 4-517

Brief introduction to relational databases, or How to free yourself from the shackles of Excel

Scientific data are almost always hierarchical in their structure, with distinct attributes applying to two or more levels of organization (e.g., trees within vegetation plots within survey points; visits within years, etc.). It is natural and efficient to store such data as a series of tables within a Relational Database Management System (RDBMS, or just “relational database”). However, I’ve observed that many graduate students submit to the siren song of Excel or ArcMap, using them to store their field data mainly because these programs provide useful interfaces for data entry. When it comes time to actually summarize, manipulate and use the data, however, the shortcomings of Excel become very clear; and the learning curve of ArcMap begins to look rather daunting.

That’s why I believe an introduction to databases early in one’s graduate career can be distinctly useful. If you get in the habit of storing data in a RDBMS, you won’t suffer from Excel Syndrome later on. Having knowledge about how your data will eventually be organized can also help you design your field data collection and data entry workflow.

Although many folks in Warnell use MS Access to store data, I’ll demonstrate the use of a FREE (and much more powerful and, well, better) alternative called PostgreSQL. You can get away with using an RDBMS without learning the Structured Query Language (SQL). However, to me this seems like deciding you’re going to leave the training wheels on your bike forever. Most major RDBMS’s use SQL “under the hood”, so this workshop will also serve as a quick intro to SQL.

You don’t need to bring a laptop to the workshop, but you might get more out of the session if you do. If you bring a computer (Windows / Mac / Linux), please try to download and install the latest PostgreSQL version from: I’ll provide some sample data that we can import and manipulate during the workshop, which will last 1-2 hours depending on the size and interests of the group.

The target audience for this workshop is:
    -grad students who have little to no familiarity with databases
    -students and others who are using Access or ArcMap, and are dissatisfied
    -those in the database choir who just want to be preached at a little.

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