Grow your own with Google Forms

Google forms (part of the Google Docs online office suite) allow you to collect and share data. This recipe isn't about using an existing source of data, but instead allows you to create your own data. You might want to run a survey, or log events that occur. With Google forms you can easily share the data you collect as a spreadsheet.

You will need

  • A google account and access to Google Docs (free)
  • An idea of data you want to collect - for example a survey

Step by step

Step 1: Decide what data you will collect

Before you start, you'll need an idea of the data you want to collect. Google Forms works best for ad-hoc surveys of people or organisations, but it can also be used to log events that occur or produce a catalogue of items.

A warning note for the researchers amongst you - self-selecting online surveys will not provide you with robust statistically valid results. But they can provide useful indications on a topic, and perhaps useful case studies.

In this recipe we're going to ask local charities to log cuts to their public funding. By making the results open we can build a bank of examples about the impact of the cuts on charities.

We've decided on a few questions we're going to ask - their name, their charity number (a unique identifier that allows us to link the data to other datasets), a description of the cut, the amount of money that has been cut and who funded it.

Step 2: Create a document

Login to Google Docs. In the top right hand corner is a drop down menu called “Create New”, select this menu, and then “Form”. This will start a new form in a new window.

The form is created using a simple WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) interface. The fields you fill in here are what the the people who fill in the form will see.

Click in the “Untitled Form” field and type a title for your form. This title should be short as it will also be the file name for the spreadsheet of results. You can also type a description of the form - use this to tell your respondents how to fill the form in, and what information you require.

Step 3: Add questions

Now fill in the questions you need. Google has created the first two questions for you - change the fields to fit your first question. The question title should be short (as it forms the column headings in the results spreadsheet) with further information given in the “Help Text” field.

There are a few different question types available. The most used will be free text fields (either one line or a paragraph). You can also use lists of options (either single or multiple choice), a numeric scale or a grid of options.

For this recipe I'm using three single text fields, a paragraph for the description, and a multiple choice question for the funder.

After you've filled in your first question, double click on “sample question 2” to edit it. To add more questions, click the “Add Items” button at the top left of the page. Don't worry if you select the wrong question type, you can change it when you edit it.

Step 4: Finalise and share the form

Before your form goes live, it's useful to edit the message that people see after they have completed the form. To do this click “More Actions” in the top right, and click “Edit Confirmation”.

Once you've done this, and all the questions are correctly formatted, your form is ready to go. Now the important part - using the form to collect data. There are a number of ways of distributing the form:

  • Email a link to the form. You can do this by clicking “Email this Form” and entering email addresses of participants. They will get a link to the form and a message from you.
  • Add a link to your website. You can find this link at the bottom of the page “You can view the published form here”. This link can be added to a website, or shared through a social networking site like Twitter or Facebook. You could use a URL-shortening service like bit.ly to make the link to the form more user-friendly, this will also allow you to see how many people have filled in the form.
  • Embed the form in your website. If you think participants would rather fill in the form directly on your site, you can use a short snippet of HTML to embed it on your site. To do this click “More actions” and then “Embed”.

Step 5: View the results

Once your form is published you can see the results straight away. Go back to the Google Docs homepage, and you'll see a spreadsheet with the title you gave the form. Click on the spreadsheet to open the results.

Every question in your form corresponds to a column in the spreadsheet. Google also records the time the entry was submitted in the first column (“Timestamp”).

From this spreadsheet you can control all actions associated with your form. The “Form (0)” menu tells you how many entries have been made, and allows you to edit the form, email it to participants and see the responses on one page.

Step 6: Make the results open

This is the Open Data Cook Book after all! It's all very well gathering your interesting data, but by opening up you also allow others to use it. They might use it in ways you haven't thought of, or mash it up with other datasets to gain a new perspective.

To open up the data, open your Google results spreadsheet as in Step 5. In the top right corner, click “Share” to open the sharing settings box. By default all spreadsheets are private. Click “Change” to make the spreadsheet public on the web.

You can also publish the spreadsheet as a web page. The advantage of doing this as well is that the data will be published as CSV, XML and other formats. Other web services can then access your results directly. To do this click the arrow to the right of “share” to open the sharing menu, then click “Publish as a web page”, and then “Start Publishing”. From this box you can get a link to the published data, which can be shared.

Health Warnings

As mentioned above, always remember that self-selecting online surveys like this are not statistically valid, therefore the results should be treated with care.

Google forms does not provide much validation of entered data. You can mark fields as “required” which will not allow forms to be submitted until it is filled in. But it does not allow you to, for example, ensure that a field contains only numeric results, or a date. You can however, edit the results in the spreadsheet afterwards.

Examples and variations

An example of Google docs in action can be seen in the Voluntary Sector Cuts website.

In this example a supplementary form has been created from scratch in HTML, which feeds into the Google form. The advantage of this approach is it allows you to include more sophisticated validation on fields, and to include more interactive features such as the map. Google have written a how-to guide for this - this does require some knowledge of HTML forms.


recipe/grow_your_own_with_google_forms.txt · Last modified: 2012/10/24 10:04 (external edit)
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