The Benefits of SaaS for the Environmental Community: Part 1

Part one of a three-part blog series on the use and benefits of SaaS solutions for the environmental community.
Digital Services
September 12, 2023
The Benefits of SaaS for the Environmental Community: Part 1

This blog is Part 1 of a three-part series exploring the use of Software as a Service (SaaS) solutions in the environmental community. In this series we will introduce readers to the concept of SaaS and the positives and negatives of its use in the environmental sector. We will also discuss The Commons novel use of SaaS workflows to support environmental data management and publishing, a concept that is cost effective and widely adaptable for environmental organizations of all sizes. Part 1 of this series will give an introduction to SaaS and its positives and negatives; Part 2 will look into how SaaS solutions can be used across water, land, and air sectors in the environmental community as well as the decision making process behind its use; and Part 3 will present three Commons case studies of organizations currently using SaaS workflows to better serve and protect their local communities and natural resources.

Everyone wants their own app. Customize, customize, customize. 

“We want our app to visualize stream water temperature across the watershed!”

“We want our app to geolocate volunteer photos with areas of high erosion!”

“We want our app to display real time stream and meteorological data on the same map while also tracking recreation status!”

This want for customization has come out of the ubiquity of technology in operations across all industries and sectors, including industries like the environmental movement that have a reputation for being analog and more organic. At its best, the explosion and accessibility of software to all sectors allows organizations of any size to incorporate digital technologies into strategies to move around information to address a swath of environmental issues. Unfortunately, the number of application ideas exceeds the capacity and resources to create a custom, coded application. As we will describe in this blog post, stakeholders in the environmental sector are well positioned to take advantage of software as a service (SaaS) offerings to design uses and processes that fit their intended technology goals rather than investing in creating a custom application.

What is SaaS?

Software as a service has already been heavily adopted in all levels of business, with some of the largest companies in the world being software developers that create SaaS applications (e.g., Salesforce, Google, etc). SaaS is a method of offering cloud-based software to organizations and users for use over the internet. Common SaaS offerings are typically used in business management applications from word processing (Google Docs) to payment processing (Stripe). This style of software delivery differs from custom built software in that it is more open,  has a predefined use, and is run almost entirely through the cloud. SaaS platforms are often discrete platforms that help organizations with specific tasks like processing payments, managing data, or reading PDFs; and with the growth and proliferation of application programming interfaces (APIs) organizations can interlink these software together into a powerful pipeline referred to as a SaaS workflow.

The Commons works to deliver projects using both custom-built applications, like Water Reporter and FieldDoc, as well as creating SaaS solutions for our stakeholders. Over the years, we’ve honed in on an excellent strategy for determining how we should deploy products and services to meet our stakeholders needs. Our clients all have unique use cases that require unique implementation strategies. When weighing our software deployment strategies we consider financial costs to deploy, maintenance costs, technical capacity, reliability, and time schedule until final product. In our early years — due to the systems available to us — we built a lot more custom applications, at a higher cost and longer development schedule, than we presently do. 

Due to the widely expanding list of tools available to the public, an increased accessibility via APIs, and decreased learning curve for users, we can combine various platforms into a suite of interlinked tools to create branded, fully customized workflows and applications that not only directly match specific use cases but can be built at a fraction of the cost compared to a custom piece of software. This is the power of SaaS and it has incredible potential in the fight to protect our natural resources.

SaaS provides flexibility to your systems

SaaS workflows have been primarily utilized across the business sector for years. Usually cloud-based, you will find SaaS solutions encompass a wide variety of uses. Some common offerings, like Google Docs or Microsoft Word are ubiquitous across users while other examples target more niche audiences, such as  Airtable for data management, MapBox and ArcOnline for geospatial needs, and Salesforce for client relationship management. These platforms have been developed, built, and maintained by organizations who then offer them to the public to meet their specific needs, providing additional support, training, and other resources on top of the base software. To put it in perspective, I’m using a SaaS workflow to write this article, as I am drafting it in Google Docs and will then publish it via WebFlow to our Commons website. SaaS solutions are already being used across the environmental community in both high level and base workflows. Some organizations may just use Google Docs to write their reports, while others may be using a high level customer relationship management (CRM) software to manage and track their expanding member community. 

SaaS offerings have been around for decades. What has changed in the past few years, to the benefit of the development community and users alike, is the prevalence and accessibility of integration across SaaS platforms. When you choose to create a SaaS workflow, you are inviting developers and savvy technology users to build connections across platforms to manage data pipelines and tailor use cases. Ultimately, more people can take advantage of the strengths of individual systems to create bespoke solutions for data, engagement, or technology goals.  In our next blog post, we will dive deeper into the infrastructure of creating a SaaS workflow.

Considering advancements in SaaS offerings, why should environmental professionals consider a SaaS workflow for data management and communication applications? Like with all technology-focused solutions, there are ever present positives and negatives. Both large and small organizations from the EPA down to local nonprofits will always have to weigh these and ask common questions like:

“Am I seeing a return on investment from these software solutions I’m buying?”

“Are these software making my work easier or helping me solve a problem?”

“Is this actually easier for me?” 

Thankfully, the primary reason that SaaS workflows are used, and why we at The Commons have been working to expand their use in the environmental sector, is the fact that in many instances the benefits of using SaaS to build software solutions vastly outweigh negatives. Pros to creating SaaS workflows, especially for small to mid-sized organizations, include:

  • Lower costs - A custom piece of software designed and built from the ground up can be exorbitant in its costs, both in terms of dollars and cents as well as time to plan, develop, execute, and maintain. Using a single piece or suite of larger, publicly available software like in a SaaS workflow is usually less expensive while allowing users to solve the same problem that a custom piece of software would solve, just at a lower cost. Also, most available platforms are subscription based, allowing organizations to select the exact tools and level of functionality that they need to solve their unique use case.
  • User friendly functionality - Software is only as effective as the person using it, which is to say a tool can be impractical in the hands of someone who doesn’t understand it. With this commonly known, usability is often at the forefront of development for the creators of large publicly available tools like Google Docs, Airtable, PDF viewers, etc. These platforms need to be easily navigable by users of all proficiency levels while still providing the highest level functionality. This core tenet of SaaS tools allows small organizations to choose which platforms best fit their needs while decreasing the time and energy it takes to learn a new tool, allowing anyone in the organization to effectively use the platform. 
  • Custom tailored support provided for each piece of software - User support and troubleshooting is essential for any piece of software. Making sure bugs are addressed or resources are available to your customer base is a large part of what makes successful software companies so successful. But for users, as your workflow and business needs grow, so do your support needs. By using well-known, publicly available platforms built by reputable companies, users know they are getting the best support specifically tailored to the platform they are using. You wouldn’t expect Google Support to help with your ArcOnline issues and vice versa. But if a user is having a problem with one specific link in their SaaS workflow they know they have a whole support team with intricate and detailed knowledge of that platform at their disposal to diagnose and fix the problem in the fastest possible time.
  • Accessibility - SaaS workflows are primarily cloud based, which opens up a world of possibilities for their use and mobility. In today’s world, most software is available in desktop and mobile versions, allowing users unparalleled access to their projects and data wherever they are. In the environmental sector, where organizations spend just as much time out in the field collecting data as they do in the office, workflows that can be maintained in the field have become essential. Additionally, some tech products have been able to invest time and resources into developing offline versions of the offerings, a perk that many environmental monitors have been looking for. 
  • Time to deployment - With SaaS platforms already up and operational with a full support team behind them, the time it takes to learn the platform and start using it is significantly less than if organizations wanted to budget for, plan, develop, and publish a custom built application for the same purpose. Additionally, the ease with which SaaS platforms can be linked to form specific workflows allows organizations a level of flexibility and customization which was previously lacking with SaaS solutions. For example organizations can now link a Glide mobile app to an Airtable database which in turn pushes data to an ArcOnline Feature Service to produce a custom map or dashboard. Use case possibilities are boundless and new ones are published every day.

However, much like most things in the tech world there will always be some downsides to certain software or workflows, and it's important to acknowledge and work through them. The most common downsides to SaaS workflows include:

  • Functionality limited to features offered by software provider - While a fully customized piece of software may be significantly more expensive, it does provide the exact features and functionality requested by the user. By using publicly available platforms in a SaaS workflow, users are limited to the features and functionality offered by that platform, often requiring the use of multiple pieces of software in place of one customized platform. For example, you wouldn’t expect Google Docs to have robust geospatial functionality because that’s outside the scope of its function. Thankfully, due to the proliferation of APIs and more open software, the linking of multiple platforms into a single SaaS workflow has become significantly easier.
  • Less personal than boutique platforms - For smaller organizations, a personalized support relationship with your software provider can be a huge boon to productivity and piece of mind. Knowing that you have dedicated support that you can rely on at any time, whom you know by name can be a huge comfort. Because SaaS platforms are often offered by larger companies, their support may be great in its helpfulness but it can often leave smaller organizations feeling lost or excluded. Knowing this, The Commons has worked to build out our Digital Services offerings which allow organizations to work with us on implementing SaaS workflows while still receiving the highly customized and valuable support that has become synonymous with The Commons name.
  • Costs - While costs for integrating SaaS workflows can seem low when compared to custom-built software, they can often give smaller organizations pause. Purchasing multiple software licenses and the prevalence of subscription based services can raise costs as multiple platforms are added to an organization's business workflow. Smaller organizations may only have a year’s worth of funding while certain platforms will have to be subscribed to for as long as they are needed, potentially adding multi-years costs to budgets. These limitations require organizations to implement careful planning and budgeting to ensure they have the capital to support SaaS solutions for as long as they are needed.

With the expanding possibilities and permutations available to organizations with a SaaS workflow some organizations may be asking — I have complex problems to solve, how can this help me? Specifically in the environmental community, this style of operation has become increasingly popular as smaller organizations can now meet the technology and processing power previously reserved for large nonprofits, technical service providers, or government agencies. Recently, The Commons has explored other ways that SaaS solutions can be used to solve environmental problems; specifically, by using it to meet custom data management and publishing needs to solve specialized environmental problems. We at The Commons believe that this is only scratching the surface of what's possible with software as a service and this past year we’ve piloted several projects that show just how powerful SaaS can be in meeting organization’s needs in areas like water quality monitoring, trash tracking, and visualizing real-time stream conditions. These will be surveyed in greater detail in Part 2 of our series on “The Benefits of SaaS for the Environmental Community”.