Mobile devices everywhere ... except in the hands of the person who is actually collecting data!

Paper and Pen: How Skeleton Key Addressed a Common Problem (that COVID-19 Amplified)

It’s an occupational hazard here at Skeleton Key: When we see paper and pens, we typically discover clunky, manual processes. Organizations that rely on paper and pen for data collection are often introducing opportunities for errors and backlogs. In our experience, paper-based files don’t allow for easy and fast references, or searches, and paper-based files don’t magically tie into billing and order systems.

As businesses began to re-open with new COVID-19 safety protocols, I personally saw a very widespread “paper-and-pen” problem that needed solving, fast.

COVID-19 Created a Huge Need for Data Collection

As soon as businesses in the St. Louis area began to open up once again, I quickly noticed a cumbersome ‘paper and pen’ check-in process nearly everywhere I went.

When I went to work out at the gym, when I went to get a haircut, when I went to visit my father-in-law at his nursing home…all of those facilities each asked me basically the same series of questions (Do you have a fever? A cough? Have you traveled to any place where COVID is a problem?). Many then took my temperature and asked me to register as a guest on a sign-in sheet attached to a clipboard. All of this was done with paper and pen.

Those stacks of clipboards and reams of papers pointed to a big-picture problem: How will these businesses store all of this information? What happens if someone is infected—will they go back and dig through boxes and stacks of paper and puzzle over all those handwritten notes? Will they be able to notify people in a timely enough fashion, doing all that?

I realized immediately that this process was going to break down the moment these businesses need to be involved in contact tracing. Businesses are required to alert others who might have been exposed to an infected person, so when that inevitably happens, are they really going to sort through stacks of paper to see who else was in the building? This was an issue of finding a needle in the proverbial haystack.

This is exactly the kind of problem, though, that we solve all the time for our clients. Skeleton Key has a lot of experience turning paper-and-pen workflows into more robust and more automated solutions, using the Claris FileMaker platform. So my developer brain kicked in and I asked myself: How can businesses and other public places do a better job of gathering, storing, organizing, and retrieving all this COVID data?

An app to solve this problem did not need to be complicated. But it did have to allow businesses some freedom when it came to asking screening questions (every business has a slightly different set of questions and answers). And it had to have the ability to store and easily access unique COVID data like temperature and check-in date and time.

After reviewing existing apps and finding the options lacking or overcomplicated we decided to take the initiative. We built the app ourselves.

Skeleton Key’s Visit Tracker App

Our app, called Visit Tracker, essentially solves the COVID paper and pen problem by giving organizations a single, intuitive app for checking in visitors and recording responses to Yes and No questions of their design.

Visit Tracker’s interface is flexible enough for use nearly anywhere; businesses can use it, as can schools and event centers. It could even be used for private one-off events, like a wedding, confirmation, or bar mitzvah. The app can be run on iOS, Android, or in a web browser, and its simple, intuitive interface allows a user to customize the questions (think along the lines of setting up an online Google survey):

Screenshot of Skeleton Key's Visit Tracker app

The form collects basic contact information that can be tracked and searched later. You can also enter scheduled visitor appointments to speed up the check-in process when the time comes to actually check visitors into your location or event.

Home Screen of Skeleton Key's Visit Tracker app

Any tweaks made to the question set update immediately for real-time responsiveness to real-world issues (like outbreaks in specific geographic areas).

A Specific Instance of a More General Problem

COVID-19 will be a paragraph in the history books, but the particular challenge that it presented for data collection is a much more widespread issue, and it won’t go away anytime soon.

What happened with these businesses happens time and again: Some information needs to be collected. A clipboard and a pen are handy, so people use those to jot down the information. But it doesn’t take long for that information to get out of hand, and as the information piles up, our ability to organize, search through and use that information drops precipitously.

Here are a few other examples of this very problem that I’ve seen:

  • A construction company that required superintendents in the field to fill out paperwork by hand and fax it to the head office at the end of each day
  • A talent agency that was scheduling bookings (and calculating payroll!) by hand, in printed calendars
  • A food pantry that was recording donations on triplicate paper forms, taking weeks to gather and process a single day’s worth of donation data
  • A medical center that collected research data forms from study participants and had to paste the data into Excel for analysis
  • A warehouse that was still doing cycle counts by hand and recording their inventory on a clipboard

It’s great that these companies are trying to systematize their workflows and gather much-needed information, but doing so with a manual process is not only inefficient and slow but also introduces too much opportunity for human error.

What is Your Paper and Pen (or Pencil) Problem?

Scratch the surface, and almost every industry has some version of the “Paper and Pen” problem. (True story: I once caught an IT professional who specialized in the automation of software installation writing down his every to-do list on a piece of paper.)

Think for a moment: What did you last write down in your role? What do your employees write down? And where does that information go next? If you needed to find a specific piece of information, how would you start looking for it?

Where can the clipboards, papers and pens in your organization be replaced by a form or an app that organizes the data and simplifies the workflow for you?