Mobile data collection is the use of mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets to collect data. The concept of using mobile devices to collect data has lived with us for years, but it is only in the recent years that many organizations are realizing its power and migrating to it from the old method of using paper forms.
Tools for developing and deploying mobile data collection forms such as ODK and Kobo Toolbox have evolved over the years and are now full of great features that make it easy to collect different types of data than can be done with paper forms. Migrating from paper forms to mobile data collection is one of the best decisions that any social impact organization must make.
In this article, I will round up the reasons why many social impact organizations are migrating to mobile data collection and why your organization needs to do so too. For the individual data professional working in social impact organizations, these will be reasons why you must develop your capacity to use tools like ODK and Kobo Toolbox.
One of the best things about collecting data using mobile devices is that you have the ability to collect more than just text and numbers.
With mobile devices, you will be able to collect location-based data like GPS; photos, videos, audios and files. You will also be able to capture embedded information like barcodes and QR codes.
These kinds of data extend the power of the insights you make out of it. For example, GPS can be used to provide services to hard-to-reach areas. Videos and photos can add emotional depth to the story you tell out of the data that was collected. QR codes can be used to manage distribution of goods and services.
As smartphones and tablets add on to their features, so do the capabilities of mobile data collection.
More ways to ask questions
Apart from being able to collect different kinds of data, mobile data collection also allows for different ways to present questions than is possible with paper forms.
Tools like Kobo Toolbox allow for more ways to present questions like rosters (repeated question groups) that will not ran out of space, rating scales, range sliders and ranking.
If having extensive features is not exciting to you, then cost-effectiveness will probably be.
Using paper forms means that every time you need to collect data, you must spend on costs of buying papers and printing. These costs will add up to a huge amount quickly if you have many projects and collect a lot of data.
On the other hand, once you incur the one-time cost of buying devices for mobile data collection, it will take an exceptionally long time for you to incur the same costs. In addition to that, nowadays it is easy to find very low-priced mobile devices like tablets, as low as 50 USD.
The tablets can also be used for other purposes like communication within your team.
Offline data collection
One of the reasons organizations in resource-limited situations found it hard to consider using mobile devices to collect data was the need to collect data without relying on a constant internet connection.
Fortunately, most mobile data collection tools now can collect data offline. Once the data has been collected, enumerators can then send the data to the server when they reach a place where they are able to connect to an internet source.
Using paper forms to collect data means that every time a form has been printed and you need to make edits, new forms must be printed, and the previous ones trashed. This is particularly inconveniencing and costly when edits must happen while the data collection team is already in the field.
With mobile data collection however, edits can happen at any point and changes synchronized on the mobile devices while data collection is in progress. In most cases the data collected prior to the changes is also preserved.
In addition to this, most mobile data collection tools allow for collaboration between teams across physical space. A team in the US can be working with a team in Malawi developing data collection forms in real time
This flexibility is important to ensure that the best data is collected at every time and that experiences in the field can be used to adapt the data collection tools.
Streamlined data collection
Unlike paper forms, mobile data collection tools allow for skip logic (also known as branching) which ensure that only the appropriate questions are being asked.
For example, a section about child-bearing can be hidden completely to male respondents and shown only to females of specified age range by use of skip logic.
This greatly streamlines the process of data collection – making it simple and speedy.
Mobile data collection tools allow for programming of data quality checks such as validation criteria and consistency checks.
For example, you can limit numeric responses like age to a specified range to avoid typing errors. You can also limit a question’s response based on the responses given on preceding set of questions.
Data quality is very important in decision making and collecting data using mobile devices with validation logic ensure that you are collecting valid data.
Real-time data collection and analysis
One of the superpowers of mobile data collection is the ability to collect, clean, aggregate and analyze data in real time.
While data is being collected in the field and sent over to the server for aggregation, scripts can be written to have the data processed and fed into a data analysis package for analysis and visualization. These functions can happen concurrently and in real time, ensuring that insights from the data are available and can be used at any point.
This is especially crucial in emergency situations such as in disaster response.
Most systems used for developing and deploying mobile data collection solutions allow for integrations with other software such as relational databases, customer relations systems, data analysis software, data visualization software and any custom information management software you can develop.
This is great for ensuring that data collected is being utilized across the organization in many different ways.
Apart from being able to integrate with other software, many open source mobile data collection systems like ODK and Kobo Toolbox can be extended with custom features to perform other functionalities using the data you collect.
This can range from adding visualization and analysis features, case tracking and project management.
The forms themselves can also be programmed to perform advanced calculations based on the data being collected.
Security has been one of the major concerns when deciding to migrate from paper forms to mobile data collection. Over time, most systems used for mobile data collection have implemented strong security features such as data encryption.
Data stored electronically in cloud servers also stands a better chance of being resistant to getting lost as compared to data stored in paper forms which can be prone to rain and fire.
In addition to this, mobile data collection tools such as ODK cloud, ONA and TeamScope also have access management features to ensure that only certain people within the organization have access to certain data.
Multiple language support
With multiple language support, it is easy to use one mobile data collection tool in multiple locations with different languages available at the click of a button.
This is essential for organizations that work in many locations with a diversity of languages and cultures.
Finally, ditching paper forms for data collection using mobile devices is one of the best environment-conscious decisions you can make as an organization. Doing so means you have reduced the number of tree-based products you use, which is great for our environment.
If you are an organization that has projects in the environment sector, this will even act as a statement of your commitment to preserving the environment.
Mobile data collection has revolutionized the way social impact organizations collect data. With many features being added to tools such as ODK and Kobo Toolbox every day, its only going to get even better. It makes sense that many organizations are jumping on the mobile data collection trend and why your organization should too. It also shows why as a data professional working in international development projects, you must invest in acquiring the knowledge of building and deploying mobile data collection solutions.