What is SpreadSheetSpace?

The SpreadSheetSpace is a virtual space for spreadsheet data sharing over the Internet. In the same way as the World Wide Web leverages hypertext links, the SpreadSheetSpace leverages cell links, the most distinctive feature of spreadsheet, and extends the power of such a mechanism to the Internet, supporting the creation of links among tables located in distinct spreadsheets. Such a feature allows spreadsheet users to synchronize and combine data to improve the quality of their analyses.

The SpreadSheetSpace Platform, which transforms the SpreadSheetSpace from an idea to a real system, supports two functionalities, the first named “Collaborative Analytics”and the second called “Everything to Excel”. Let us take a look at them in detail.

  • Collaborative Analytics refers to the very common case in which the analysis of the data associated to a phenomenon (a process, the evolution of a business, etc.) is carried out by a team made up of several people. While Big Data Analytics is based on the delocalization of the big data sets in an external platform (e.g., Hadoop, Spark, etc.), SpreadSheetSpace enabled Collaborative Analytics assumes that the data to be processed reside in the administrative domains of the team participants. Every participant owns his/her tables and in principle is not allowed to see the tables of the other participants. However, he or she may decide to expose his/her data, or part of it, to one or more participants to support their analyses. In the end, all participants access the result of the joint analysis developed by the team.
  • Everything to Excel refers to the very common case in which someone carries out an autonomous analysis of a phenomenon (again a process, the evolution of a business, etc.) managed by an external platform. Examples of these situations are the case in which an accountant processes the data exposed by an ERP (or more in general by an Information System) to do Business Intelligence, or the case in which a person in charge of a service processes tracking data to improve service quality. The pattern, in this context, is based on the idea that spreadsheets are kept permanently “in sync” with the reference software platforms, in such a way that the analyses developed in the spreadsheets maintain their validity over time.

How does all this happen?

In Collaborative Analytics every Excel user selects a table in a spreadsheet and exposes it to another user (or more than one, of course). This second user imports the table in his/her spreadsheet and voilà! It’s done. From now on the spreadsheet that exposes the data and the spreadsheet that imports the data maintain synchronization. The user who made the table available maintains the data owner role and, as a consequence, maintains the permissions required to update the table content. On the contrary, the user that imports the data is only allowed to use the imported data in his/her personal calculations/analyses/reports while he/she does not have write access on it.

In Everything to Excel the administrators of a platform configure the periodical exportation of a table from an ERP, or more in general from an Information System, to user spreadsheets in such a way that each exportation is treated as a new version of the same data set. Any calculation, chart or report based on data managed by the software platforms becomes dynamic and evolves over time.

The SpreadSheetSpace Team

SpreadSheetSpace was born as a scientific project. The SpreadSheetSpace proposition, published in the IEEE Computer Magazine[1] and described in its initial video[2] can be summarised as follows. In the same way as in 1990 the World Wide Web generalized the hypertext concept leveraging the Internet global connectivity, now the SpreadSheetSpace generalizes the spreadsheet concept, i.e., that of tables enriched with formulas and data dependencies, again leveraging the global Internet connectivity. The principle is to extend the data dependencies from the single spreadsheet domain to the global network domain, allowing each cell of a spreadsheet to point to any cell of any other spreadsheet.

It seems simple, one might envision just an extension of the link annotation. However, it is not that simple as the point is to extend the event-based system upon which spreadsheets are based to the global Internet domain, in such a way that the update of a cell in a spreadsheet belonging to a community of spreadsheets be able to issue events which propagate to a number of other spreadsheets through the Internet, thus triggering the update of all the cells that depend on the source cell, either directly or indirectly.

In other words, the SpreadSheetSpace is a Web of connected and interdependent Spreadsheets.

But SpreadSheetSpace is not just about science. It is also an industrial initiative which touches issues of extreme relevance. In particular the “Single Version of the Truth” concept, intended as the synchronization among all the users that operate on a shared set of data, opposed to the “Multiple Versions of the Truth” concept, intended as the situation in which different users operate on different incoherent versions of the same data, turns out to be the central aspect of the SpreadSheetSpace proposition. The second SpreadSheetSpace short video[3] prevalently focuses on such an issue and more in general summarises the industrial aspects of the SpreadSheetSpace initiative.

The team that designed and implemented the system in these last four years is led by Prof. Massimo Maresca, who currently teaches Computer Networks and Software Platforms at the School of Engineering of the University of Genoa, and at the time at which the SpreadSheetSpace project was conceived used to teach Computer Systems at the School of Statistics of the University of Padua, and by Prof. Pierpaolo Baglietto, who teaches Computer Systems and Distributed Systems at the School of Engineering of the University of Genoa. The SpreadSheetSpace system was developed and engineered by M3S, a high tech company located in Genoa, founded about fifteen years ago by Prof. Maresca and Prof. Baglietto as a spin-off of their activity along with Marconi Communications. Since the beginning of the project, about five years ago, several M. Sc. And Ph. D. students worked on it while Currently the SpreadSheetSpace staff includes about ten people. The variety of experiences of these people leads to an execution plan that balances scientific evolution, industrial evolution and marketing, to engineer the SpreadSheetSpace technology and bring it to real applications.

[1] M. Maresca, The Spreadsheet Space: Eliminating the Boundaries of Data Cross-Referencing, IEEE Computer, Vo. 49 n. 9, 2016.

[2] What is SpreadSheetSpace?

[3] SpreadSheetSpace Explained