Recently, I was in the field with Pact Myanmar’s monitoring and evaluation team doing a pre-assessment of women’s savings groups before we developed a survey tool. We found an unexpected outcome: although the program did teach literacy, many women said they felt empowered because they had learned to sign their names, which is required for tracking training attendance and savings and loan verification.

This led to an animated discussion of how we could measure this in the survey, which we were planning to conduct using CommCare. We wondered if we should add a paper supplement and ask women to write something.

image1The next morning, two of the M&E staff proudly  presented  a form they had developed in CommCare  overnight. Like so many times before, they had discussed the problem, looked through the CommCare site, found and applied a solution. CommCare had recently added a type of question called “signature capture,” meaning that we could ask women to sign directly on the phones as a check for literacy.

Pact’s DIY Approach to CommCare 

What I like about this anecdote is how it demonstrates that innovative, enthusiastic CommCare users (like our M&E team!) can do almost anything in CommCare without specialized expertise and with minimal support. We have learned to use CommCare primarily through using the online resources available, with some support from the staff at CommCare who answer help tickets and Myanmar’s very own Dimagi representative, Saijai Liangpunsakul. Since starting to learn CommCare in May 2014, we have collected more than 40,000 responses across 20 forms that our team developed on our own.

How this is possible:

  1. CommCare’s help site is amazing. If you know what your problem is, the help site is often the only place you need to go. The catalogue of topics and search functions cover a huge range of topics, errors and functions.
  2. The data collection platform is set up to encourage innovation. While a lot of platforms prefer you to use the interface created by the company, CommCare allows a blend of its ready-to-use interface and custom programming. Our staff has strong programming skills already, and this platform enables those skills rather than constraining them – meaning that we can create forms that respond to our data collection needs rather than changing our data collection formats to suit the platform.
  3. CommCare believes in creating networks for sharing. We access both the virtual CommCare community and the real life CommCare community Saijai has facilitated in Yangon. This creates another resource for learning, support and inspiration. We can learn how another organization is using dashboards and share our love of lookup tables.

You can do it too! 

So… could you pay Dimagi to set up great CommCare forms for your project and save your staff time? Of course. But it is also possible to teach yourself CommCare using the free online resources if you are willing to devote the time and have staff with strong problem-solving skills. This makes it easier to update forms or create new ones internally, adapting them as program activities or needs change, as well as to support data collectors throughout the life of the project.

If we can do this in Myanmar, where only 11% of people had mobile phones in 2012, you can too!

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This blog post was written by Jade Lamb, monitoring and evaluation manager at Pact. Pact is an NGO currently operating in 27 countries, where we implement development projects using an integrated approach in health, livelihoods, natural resource management, capacity development, and governance. Pact has operated in Myanmar since 1997, reaching more than 3 million people through community-based health, livelihoods, renewable energy and empowerment projects.