Mobile data collection in monitoring and evaluation (M&E) refers to using mobile devices like mobile phones, tablet computers and PDAs for performing surveys. Data collection has traditionally been performed using paper forms, however, the rapid development of web and mobile technologies, popularization of mobile phones and increasing smartphone adoption has opened new possibilities for data collection and analysis.
Mobile data collection is already becoming popular in various fields. In healthcare (mHealth) mobile devices are used for collecting health data, delivery of information and real- time patient monitoring. In agriculture (e-agriculture) information and communication technology (ICT) is used to help in rural area development by improving communication and the information gathering process. NGOs use mobile solutions to conduct assessments, evaluate projects or gather data. Mobile data collection tools help aid organizations respond more quickly and efficiently, improving operations overall. Other fields that make use of mobile data collection include research and development, environmental protection and participatory science.
BENEFITS OF USING ICT IN DATA COLLECTION
Paper surveys have numerous drawbacks like high costs, questionable data accuracy and long turnaround times , which make it difficult to effectively manage and execute project monitoring and evaluation programmes. Information and communication technology is becoming a viable solution to those problems and introduction of mobile data collection software solutions is the first step in that direction. The important question however is what can an organisation really gain by using ICT in it’s monitoring and evaluation programme?
More effective management
Transitioning from traditional paper forms to electronic ones can greatly improve efficiency of managing M&E activities. First, surveys can be monitored in real time, giving the manager an overview of the current monitoring and evaluation efforts status. Second, data can be submitted immediately after it has been collected making it available for evaluation almost instantly, which also removes the need for manually re-entering information from a physical medium to a computer system. Moreover, changes to the surveys can be implemented at any time and distributed to field officers through an internet connection at minimum cost and with minimal delay. Lastly, the aggregation of data submitted from the field can be fully or partially automated. All this allows for much more efficient management of M&E programmes, which in turn leads to better results.
Improved data quality
Mobile data collection can help in improving the quality of gathered information by reducing the risk of human error. Electronic forms can be automatically validated before submission, ensuring that only the properly filled in forms are accepted. What is more, input fields can have masks applied, thereby enforcing a proper data format. Forms can also be context sensitive, displaying only the relevant inputs based on data which has already been entered. Finally, submitted information can be reviewed right after submission and the reviewer, depending on the selected software solution, may have the possibility to request the collector to perform further adjustments to the submitted form.
New data types
The use of ICT allows field officers to sample data that could not be collected using traditional paper forms. Mobile devices make it possible to take pictures and record sounds and videos, further increasing the value of gathered information.
Cost and time effectiveness
Taking advantage of mobile technology can also help in lowering expenses. Automatisation reduces work duplication and makes it possible to minimise human input, freeing staff to perform more productive duties. Also there is no need to print and transport paper forms, and it is possible to let field officers use mobile devices they already own for the purpose of data collection, which can help further decrease the cost of M&E activities.
The popularity of mobile phones allows for new ways of performing surveys. With the possibility of submitting collected data by SMS, anyone owning a mobile phone can become a field officer and participate in the data collection projects. This provides opportunities to employ local populations to support monitoring and evaluation .
EXAMPLES OF MOBILE DATA COLLECTION AND M&E SOFTWARE SOLUTIONS
There are many software solutions already available on the market that focus on supporting monitoring and evaluation activities and enabling mobile data collection. Below you will find a short list presenting some of them.
In the case of this data collection platform, the web application serves the purpose of designing custom forms using wide range of available inputs. The web interface can also be used for reviewing submitted information through an extensive number of available data views. Forms can be designed on a device as well with the use of the iForms Kiosk iOS app. Collecting and submitting data is performed with the use of either iForm or iForm ES iOS app. iFormBuilder’s impressive user base spans across over 110 countries.
Similar to other solutions, doForms consists of both a web and a mobile application. It allows users to design their own forms or choose one from the application’s rich library and customise it if needed. What sets doForms apart from the other data collection systems is that it allows for creation of specialised Dispatch and Work Order forms with the purpose of managing mobile workers. doForms mobile apps used for data collection are available for both Android and iOS platforms.
CHALLENGES IN MOBILE DATA COLLECTION SYSTEM IMPLEMENTATION
Scale and complexity
Implementing a mobile data collection system requires work on at least two fronts consisting of web and mobile applications. The web application can be further divided into backend and frontend, each considerably complicated and with its own set of requirements. The mobile application can also become more challenging, due to the need to support multiple platforms, to ensure the largest possible user base. Every mobile platform like Android, iOS or BlackBerry comes with a specific set of technologies, requirements and restrictions that need to be accounted for in order to provide a uniform experience and complete feature set across all platforms. Designing and implementing such a complex system requires an extensive skillset and good organisation.
In order to ensure the safety of collected information, both web and mobile applications need to be properly secured and the connection between the applications should be encrypted. Also, in the case of mobile applications, sensitive data like user sessions has to be stored using specialised storage mechanisms like Keychain Access on iOS platform to prevent unauthorised access to information that might compromise system security.
In the case of the ViewWorld platform, after the mobile application was made available for use, the next step was to ensure data consistency. During development we needed to carefully plan all changes made to the data model in order to maintain backwards compatibility and enable an upgrade option for users of the older versions of the application. Failure in this regard meant that users could lose their data, which was not acceptable. We implemented custom migration mechanisms on both iOS and Android platforms to enable upgrade from older versions of the applications, even after introducing significant changes to the data architecture.
Minimising information flow
When developing a mobile application it is a good practice to minimise the amount of incoming and outgoing information. In the ViewWorld project it was very important since the amounts of collected data could be significant, especially given the fact that pictures and videos were often part of the submitted information. That is why we implemented a synchronisation mechanism that allowed us to transfer only the parts of data relevant to a given user, and only if it has been modified since the last synchronisation.
Choosing map tile service provider
Another problem that we encountered while working on the ViewWorld platform was choosing the right Open Street Map (OSM) tile service provider. Using Google Maps was excluded as an option for business reasons, and OSM appeared to be a reasonable solution that could be implemented for frontend, Android and iOS applications. There are many providers, but we eventually settled with MapBox, which appeared to be the most mature and feature complete solution available at that time. What was very important to us, since there was no OSMDroid alternative for the iOS platform, was also that MapBox provided complete iOS SDK including offline tiles storage, which saved us a lot of time we would otherwise have to spend on implementing custom tile storage mechanisms.
Using information and communication technologies for collecting data is becoming quite popular in the field of monitoring and evaluation. It helps in lowering the costs and improving collected data quality. In effect, mobile data collection makes the monitoring process more efficient and evaluation much more effective, since the gathered information is more accurate, available with minimum delay and relatively easily aggregated when compared to the traditional methods based on paper forms. Furthermore, more advanced software solutions offer sophisticated data mining and visualisation options to allow even greater insight into collected data. Mobile data collection is an excellent example of how technology helps in solving real life problems by supporting projects whose goals are to improve healthcare, modernise agriculture or provide aid to people of developing countries.
I would like to thank my colleagues Adrian Ossowski, Tomasz Noworyta, Bartłomiej Wójtowicz, Tomasz Czana and Dawid Pośliński for providing insights into some of the challenges of creating complex data collection systems.
References * 1. https://www.theclearinitiative.org/mobile-based-tech.pdf, Mobile-Based Technology For Monitoring And Evaluation * 2. https://www.datadyne.org/2013/03/fourphasesoffielddata/, Four Phases of Field Data: Tech Transforming Data Collection for Development * 3. https://www.peaceworks.ca/content/mobile-data-collection, PeaceWorks’ Mobile Data Collection * 4. https://www.emitmobile.co.za/mobile-monitoring-and-evaluation-with-community-media-trust/, Mobile Monitoring and Evaluation with Community Media Trust * 5. https://www.doforms.com/, DoForms Mobile Data Collection * 6. https://blog.wesolve.com/blog/california-international-development-firm-field-testing-mobile-data-collection-in-santa-monica/, California International Development Firm Field Testing Mobile Data Collection in Santa Monica