Data Collection using Mobile Phones - the right tool for the job

Marcus Wagenaar – Chief Technology Officer (CTO)
Wednesday, June 13, 2012

 

Mobile phones are a natural fit for data collection. They are ubiquitous, they are cheap, they are reliable and people know how to use them. There are various approaches for data collection using mobile phones. Text to Change looks at each data collection project as a new challenge to find the right set of tools and processes that make data collection as efficient and user-friendly as possible.

 

In this blog I will briefly discuss how we at Text to Change approach data collection using mobile phones. Because of our extensive experience we help partners to select the right tool to fit their data needs. We support the partner throughout the whole process to ensure that they have the necessary expertise and resources to carry through a successful data collection program. From previous projects we have clearly seen how successful data collection using mobile phones can be. We therefore hope that we can support more organizations in the future and help them take advantage of mobile technology to support their data needs.

 

 

Formhub – A user friendly open source data collection tool

Formhub is a new initiative by the Modi Research Group at Colombia Univeristy. The project team describes formhub in 5 words as:

  • Simple
  • Collaborative
  • Secure
  • Free (as in beer)
  • Free (as in speech)

 

It is a data collection platform based on open standards and proven technologies like XLSForms. Another way of explaining this initiative is that the team has taken a set of existing but poorly integrated technologies and tools ans created a coherent, cloud-hosted platform which makes data-collection using Android devices easy and accessible to anyone. And the best of all, it’s free!

 

Text to Change has been asked to be a partner in this initiative. Because we have many partners for which we do data collection in the field we are in a unique position to test and use the formhub platform and provide feedback and suggestions to the team at Colombia University. Within two months of starting the collaboration Text to Change has already used formhub technology in several data collection programs in Uganda and Malawi.


Designing a succesfull data collection program with formhub
Technology is only a tool. Having a free platform to use for data collection does not mean any organization can run a successful data collection program without thinking through the entire process from project design, implementation and evaluation. Text to Change has extensive experience in providing support throughout the complete project cycle, from developing the initial concept to doing data analysis and evaluation. Formhub plays an important part in this process as we will see in this example.

 

A data collection project starts with a data need. An organization wants to have specific information from a specific group of people. Text to Change will sit down with the right stakeholders to come up with a detailed list of data requirements to fit the data needs of an organization. Once it is known which data needs to be collected and where this data should come from, the technology will come in to play. If the data need is complex and the budget allows for use of smartphones formhub is an obvious choice. Formhub provides a very user friendly way of designing and filling complex forms. These forms can have all kinds of questions, from simple yes/no tickboxes to GPS information, images and much more. By carefully designing a form for the partner we can tailor the form to fit their specific needs, while still making sure that the people who will fill the form have an easy way of doing so.

 

When the forms have been designed, the partner will start testing the form. For this purpose Text to Change will provide them with the appropriate Android devices, which can be anything from a cheap Huawei Android phone to a more expensive Samsung Android Tablet computer, depending on the needs of the project requirements. By testing the forms we can ensure that everything works as intended and the people that have to fill the forms are properly trained and understand all the different aspects of the technology.

 

 

Once the testing phase is completed the collection of data in the field can start. Because formhub is a collaborative platform it is very easy to share data with every relevant stakeholder. Formhub provides ready-made tools to ensure the right data goes to the right people. Because formhub is still in the early stages there are no data-analysis tools inside the platform itself. Therefore, Text to Change will advise or support any data analysis needs of the partners. Examples could be: data visualization, data quality checking and statistical analysis. Depending on the project the data collection will finish after a specific period (ie: a one-of survey) or continue for and extended period of time (ie: collecting monthly data from health clinics). Depending of the resources available at the partner Text to Change will either continue assisting in the data collection efforts or ensure that the partner has a complete methodology in place to run the data collection on their own, with backup support from Text to Change.

 

Alternative method – use SMS for data collection

Text to Change also uses SMS for data collection. When data collection projects have a very large scale the using SMS can be the better option. An example of such a data collection project is a big survey we did amongst the users of one of the SMS health information services that have been implemented at Text to Change. Because the users of this service were members of the general population we already knew that our target group had access to mobile phones. We even had their phone number since they had been accessing our SMS health information service with their phones.

 

By using our brand new open source Vusion messaging platform we can very easily design surveys that are carried out by sending and receiving simple SMS messages. Vusion has building support for creating SMS questions with answer options. It is even possible to link multiple questions and create an SMS survey were multiple questions are asked over a period of time or new questions are posed to the user once they have answered the previous one. Vusion also provides a very user-friendly way of downloading survey data in excel and CSV formats for further data analysis. Our next blog will discuss Vusion in more detail and explain how the Vumi platform, developed by the Praekelt Foundation, has helped us in creating our new open source messaging platform.



Comments

Thanks for the insights into the data collection process. A few questions:

a) How do you handle the poor network quality issues which may affect much longer forms?

b) Is the platform running a native Android application or web based forms? How do you handle the costs with regard to bandwidth usage?

c) How do you tie the data to a specific data collector, does the platform also capture the GPS co-ordinates at the point which the survey was taken (ensures that the surveyor actually visited different locations instead of entering the data under a tree)

d) At the back end can the raw data be exported to different formats, Excel, CSV for further analysis?

e) Does the platform provide support for displaying different questions based on the answers?

Thanks again for sharing

Thank you for your comments Stephen. Answers to your questions below:

 

a) Blank forms are downloaded to the phone. Once they have been downloaded you do not need a connection to fill forms. You can fill in as many as you like without a data connection. You will only need a connection to send the filled forms to the server.

b) It's a native open-source Android application; ODK Collect. Data usage is low. You download blank forms from the server once. Submitting data has a very low bandwidth cost if you do not include things like pictures in your survey.

c) You can include GPS coordinates in a form and you can also capture IMEI number, phone number and other meta-data.

d) Yes.

e) Yes, there is skipping logic, constraints, calculations, etcetera. See the formhub website for more information on this.

Was planning to capture Real time Sales data using SMS technology. Can the data received from SMS be digitized and integrated/synchronized with SAP. If yes, who are the providers of the technology? Approximate costs ? Background Infrastructure required, how long does it take to implement etc ..

Thanks in Advance !!

Shrey

That can definitely be done. All incoming messages in VUSION can be accessed in realtime through an API, which uses the JSON format.

I want to develop an sms data collection that will retrieve phone numbers and addresses of companies and business establishment. What technology will be good for this and can the data delivered on real time.

Hi Ekena,

Thank you for your question.

You have many options. There are different factors to consider.

In your case I would first have a look at something like FrontlineSMS. This is an SMS platform you can easily try out on your own computer by connecting your phone to your laptop. After you have looked at FrontlineSMS and what it has to offer you will have a better idea of what would suit your needs.

If you find out that FrontlineSMS does not serve your needs you could start looking into VUSION, VUMI & RapidSMS as alternatives. These are bigger platforms which are more flexible but also harder to configure and use. You need a lot of technical knowledge to get them up and running.

You can also consider working with us so you can use our VUSION platform we already have connected in a number of countries. You can send an enquiry to contact@texttochange.com with more details so we can provide you with a cost estimate.

Hey, thanks for writing this up. I've been looking at several blogs to find something like this. Do you by any chance have a contact email that you could share? I would like to contact you directly.

Regards
Ashley
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Hi Ashley,

 

Good to hear that this blog was helpful. You can contact Text to Change via contact@texttochange.com. We will make sure your question gets to the right person. 

can i download this tool for studying actual implementation?

Can this mobile data collection be used in agriculture

This can definitely be done for agriculture or others sectors one might be interested in.  

Hi. Is there a way to capture gps coordinates without internet connection? Thanks.

Launched an online store for a custom made product in health and fitness field. Curious to apply this knowledge. What are the costs involved to take captured data and create an SMS program for our affiliates?

Hi, to be able to answer your question we need a bit more information about your target group and the information you want to provide for them. You can email us at contact@texttochange.com to provide more information. Thank you. 

Hi,
If am to collect data from a community using health workers that have feature phones and subsequent transmission via an sms what is the best tool to use to collect the data?

Does OpexData tool use sms to submit data?

I need to collect some data using mobile devices. Which mobile phone or device will you recommend I buy that can help me capture the data and i can then download the data for analysis

Hi, to be able to answer your question we need a bit more information about your target group and the information you want to provide for them. You can email us at contact@texttochange.com to provide more information. Thank you. 

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