The Benefits of SaaS for the Environmental Community: Part 2

Part two of a three-part blog series on the use and benefits of SaaS solutions for the environmental community.
Digital Services
September 21, 2023
The Benefits of SaaS for the Environmental Community: Part 2

This blog is Part 2 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.

The increased use of software as a service (SaaS) workflows in the land, air, and water conservation sectors has the opportunity to put powerful tech solutions in the hands of organizations to whom these offerings have been previously unavailable, whether due to cost, availability, or usability. Both small and large organizations alike can access SaaS platforms with the ability to help solve both universal and unique environmental issues at a variety of geospatial and temporal scales. As these technologies continue to advance, smaller organizations can match the scale and depth of custom built applications produced by larger organizations with just a few thoughtfully linked SaaS platforms, often at a much more cost-effective price point than building applications from scratch. SaaS workflows may not be the best solution for some organizations or their use case; we recommend to any group to carefully evaluate the pros and cons of using SaaS platforms for their particular use before getting started with implementation.

Should my organization use Software as a Service?

In Part 1 of this series we defined SaaS solutions and outlined their pros and cons for use in the environmental sector. These pros and cons are central to an organization's decision making process when evaluating whether or not to implement SaaS workflows. While this blog series is meant to convey the power of SaaS workflows and their benefits, it’s important to note that a SaaS workflow may not be the best option for a particular organization or a particular use case.

When evaluating any software based solution, organizations consider a wide array of variables to determine which system or platform is best for them. For example, maybe your organization has a fully remote team that needs collaborative power for moving data from collection to a secure data management base. You could pay for a custom piece of software that could achieve this but that would be extraneous as that use case can be met easily with publicly available platforms already in service. The first step that you should take when evaluating SaaS applications is to  outline and understand your desired outcome. Having a concrete grasp on what problem you’re trying to solve and what software or tools you’ll need to solve it can help prioritize what features are essential to your technology stack (e.g., data management, APIs, mapping, etc) . This will help guide your choice between needing a custom-built tool or a custom SaaS workflow.

Once you have a concrete goal, we recommend that you conduct a tech survey of the software available. With a firm understanding of the features you need you can better filter platforms that serve your needs. However, this requires organizations to consider a series of questions like: 

What offerings meet my outcome goals?

Can it integrate with other systems?

How much data ownership will I retain with this system?

With this information you can determine if SaaS solutions may be best suited for your needs. If multiple platforms fit different components, you need to look into if these platforms offer open application programming interfaces (APIs) so that they can be linked in a comprehensive workflow. Obviously the more common the use case the more likely a single SaaS platform already exists that could meet that need; but with the increase in more comprehensive and specific use cases (especially in the environmental sector) this step is essential as single SaaS platforms may not fully address your needs. In these circumstances, a custom-built piece of software may be needed to meet your organization’s use case.

Arguably the most important, and final, step in the decision making process comes down to one universal factor — cost. The cost differences between a SaaS workflow and a custom-built software application will usually be night and day. SaaS platforms often have base costs determined by the number of users or by a specific “plan”, while custom software typically needs to be planned, designed, and published by a software contractor or company resulting in a large upfront cost as well as continued maintenance and support costs. For small organizations, especially non-profits, with lower or fixed budgets SaaS platforms will overwhelmingly be the best option. Here are some reasons why:

  •  They are covering their costs through a mixture of revenue streams such as subscription and investments. The costs for SaaS operations are not put onto you as they would be if you became a product owner;
  • Many  popular SaaS platforms provide reasonable pricing structures or non-profit pricing;
  • Many SaaS offerings can fit a broad array of your organization’s needs because they strive for universal applicability. For example, if desired you could configure your AirTable subscription to support your environmental data management, CRM, and email service needs. 

Common SaaS workflows for environmental organizations

The biggest question for environmental professionals boils down to “what does using a SaaS workflow in the context of clean water or conservation really mean for me?”. If you survey the environmental sector and examine the amazing applications that organizations have produced, their use cases range from real-time air quality updates (EPA’s AirNow app) to water quality data management (Water Reporter, Survey 123, etc) and even real-time maritime conditions (Sofar Ocean). The list of custom-built solutions continues to grow, but as previously discussed, they are often out of the fiduciary or skill range of most small to mid-sized organizations. How can these smaller organizations build impactful applications? 

One of the best use cases for utilizing a SaaS workflow in the environmental sector is for environmental data management. Almost all organizations in the environmental sector collect or utilize some form of environmental data to further meet their respective missions, whether that’s water quality data, land use data, or anything in between. Unfortunately, small to midsize organizations often don’t have the access, training, or need to employ highly technical database software. Most organizations need a user-friendly platform in which they can collect and store their relational datasets while also having some functionality to run statistics or communicate analytics to target audiences. 

If we break down these use cases into their base parts (data management, mapping, statistical calculations, etc) we start to see that they can be looked at as a sequential series of needs that make up a bigger whole. What if we could have a SaaS workflow where we use a database platform (Airtable, etc) to manage our data, a data collection platform to funnel our field data into our database (Glide, Google Forms, etc), and a geospatial platform to map our data with relevant points and readings (ArcOnline, Carto, Mapbox, etc), all at a fraction of the annual cost of the development or continued use of a custom application? Thanks to the power of APIs and the increased connectivity between platforms, workflows like this are already being utilized in the environmental space with a high degree of success.

Want to collect data electronically in the field and have it populated into your database? There are SaaS workflows that can easily accomplish this. Want volunteers to collect pictures of pollution and submit them on an electronic form? SaaS platforms can do that too. Want to send curated weekly water quality reports to local stormwater regulators in a few clicks of a mouse with data from your database? You guessed it, SaaS.

Anacostia Riverkeeper online ESRI Dashboard presenting live-updating trash data on the Anacostia River.

At The Commons, we’ve begun working with organizations to develop SaaS workflows using publicly available platforms with the express purpose of creating a centralized database for their water quality data while also allowing them to publish it in a publicly available dashboard or map. Database platforms like Airtable and Smartsheet are relatively inexpensive, allow for a more customizable and user-friendly experience, and can be used in multi-functional ways within the organization (e.g., water quality data, volunteer database, donor management, etc). With the proliferation of APIs across most platforms, databases configured in these SaaS platforms can be linked to other SaaS offerings, allowing organizations to mirror the function of a custom-built application. 

The ways in which organizations in the environmental community are utilizing SaaS workflows to help protect our most valuable natural resources are multiplying year after year. With so many organizations requiring solutions for unique use cases, the ability to seamlessly interlink disparate platforms into a comprehensive workflow is increasing the reach and impact of organizations no matter their size. In Part 3 of this blog, we’ll take a deep dive into three specific case studies The Commons is working on with partners who are implementing comprehensive SaaS workflows to solve complex environmental problems.