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Mobile Data Collection

The growth of mobile phones and tablet devices has opened the doors to a wide range of apps and innovative ideas. From decibel meters to task lists, to games like Angry Birds; pick an idea and there is likely an app for that.

The widespread availability of mobile devices is also having a huge impact on the basic business activities such as data collection. While it doesn't bring to mind buzz words like "social" and "gamification", data collection is a core need and can actually be quite interesting.

International Development

Our first mobile data collection projects have been on international development projects through work with MEDA (Mennonite Economic Development Associates). MEDA has projects in countries all over the world.  An important aspect of their work is measuring and evaluating their programs in order to ensure their work is effective. MEDA also does a lot of market research in order to better understand areas in which they work. All of these activities require collecting data from people in rural areas who do not have access to tools like Survey Monkey. A lot of work goes into survey creation.  And then even more work goes into actually sending people into the field with these surveys, interviewing people and collecting information.

Historically, the rural and disconnected nature of these locations has required paper based surveys. However, with mobile phones and tablets becoming better, cheaper and more accessible, these devices are starting to be used in the data collection process. Tools such as Open Data Kit, and Episurveyor allow for the easy creation of surveys that can be loaded onto phones and tablets. Once loaded, these surveys will work regardless of whether you have a cellular or internet connection. The data can be collected offline, stored on the phone or memory card, and then uploaded to a centralized server when a connection is available.

Benefits of Mobile Data Collection

We have found that mobile data collection allows for:

  • Improved efficiency, access and timeliness: Instead of waiting until paper surveys get to the main office, and for the data to be entered into an electronic format, data is collected electronically and can be sent in whenever there is access to internet or a cellular data connection.
  • Reduced cost: Despite extra costs associated with purchasing tablets and training, there are significant long term cost savings associated with the improved efficiency that comes associated with eliminating the need for printing paper surveys and the re-keying of information.
  • Increased data accuracy: Mobile surveys allow for validation and conditional logic to ensure data is collected properly.
  • Collection of GPS, photos, videos, audio: Depending on the device being used, mobile devices and software like Open Data Kit allow for the collection of rich media and information that would not be possible with paper surveys.

Future Possibilities

It's exciting to see the impact mobile data collection can have in international development and to think about how this type of technology can be have an impact in other areas. I can imagine tablet devices at physiotherapy clinics being used not only to collect basic patient information, but also for taking photos and videos of progress. While receiving treatment, patients could watch videos that help them to understand their injury or to learn proper exercise techniques. In construction or civi engineering organizations, field workers could more seamlessly collect and have access to site and project information including GPS coordinates, pictures and videos.

The technology is there and improving daily. When phrased as "data collection" it sounds pretty boring. The exciting part is all of the ways people will find to use the technology to improve their businesses and, ulitimately, the lives of people.

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