What’s Ahead for Mobile Data Collection in Agriculture?

Q&A with Jack Hetherington, Research Program Coordinator at the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR)

ACIAR Mobile Data Collection

Students from Udyana University testing CommCare with cattle farmers in Bali, Indonesia. Photo source: Jack Hetherington

Partner: Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR)

ProjectMobile Acquired Data (MAD) evaluation

Industry: Agriculture

Location: Australia

Overview:  In 2015 ACIAR conducted a study designed to determine the feasibility of using a single, off-the-shelf mobile data collection solution. The pilot evaluated 17 mobile solutions and concluded CommCare as the best fit for ACIAR agricultural research projects operating in rural areas with limited connectivity. This September ACIAR is set to complete its evaluation of CommCare across nine projects where it was implemented. By the end, ACIAR will have produced a body of knowledge on the impact of digital data collection apps in these agriculture projects.

In the following Q&A, Jack Hetherington from Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR) tells us more about this study, the nine projects used in the evaluation, and the lessons he’s learned along the way. Jack has been working at ACIAR for over two years now, starting off in the Graduate Program. His main priority is supporting the design and implementation of agricultural research projects, developing and managing partnerships and communicating ACIAR’s research to a wide range of stakeholders. He is currently working with the agribusiness research program at ACIAR.


Dimagi: When did ACIAR realize the potential of mobile data collection in agriculture?

Hetherington: ACIAR realized the increased demand for mobile data collection through a growing number of research projects requesting funds to build custom-made applications. These applications would require significant upfront investment in designing and building an app from scratch, and further resources to maintain the software. These apps would also be very specific, with limited application beyond the life of the project.

The phrase “there is an app for that” is true for many things, and data collection apps were no exception. Kopernik, an NGO based in Indonesia, had performed a series of desktop evaluations on ICTs that can support monitoring impact, published in the Impact Tracker Technology catalogue.

Based on this evaluation, ACIAR commissioned AgImpact to conduct a pilot of a digital data collection apps, partnering with Kopernik, adapting their analysis to the context of an ACIAR-funded research project. This pilot determines the feasibility of using a single, off-the-shelf mobile data collection solution for future use. After looking at the results from the field test, ACIAR determined that CommCare was the best solution for their work.


Dimagi: What’s your main focus at ACIAR?

Hetherington: My main focuses while at ACIAR has been supporting the Mobile Acquired Data (MAD) evaluation. This evaluation will assess the impact of digital data collection apps on ACIAR-funded research projects. MAD has been running since 2015 and will complete this September.

More specifically, we are supporting and evaluating how nine different projects go about adopting CommCare and document the results to help inform future projects looking to adopt apps. Each project is doing something different with CommCare and is working in a variety of agricultural systems and geographies, from beef value chains in Pakistan, to Myanmar rice production and Papua New Guinean Cocoa.

Skip to the bottom of the post for a recap on all of the projects!

AgImpact is supporting each project with technical expertise in CommCare. They are documenting the time and resources necessary at different stages, from designing the survey to monitoring and evaluating. The projects teams are doing the same — so in the end, we will be able to get a reasonable picture of the resources required.

What we are seeing is a diversity between the projects. Some projects are spending significant amounts of time on learning the system with available online resources, while others had to get their surveys completed in a very short time. These results will be documented and publicly shared to help inform the design of future projects.


Students from Udyana University testing CommCare with cattle farmers in Bali, Indonesia. Photo source: Jack Hetherington


Dimagi: What were your biggest concerns about moving forward with CommCare?

Hetherington: After the pilot was complete, one of the major concerns about moving forward was understanding the resources and time commitment required to successfully implement it. ACIAR projects typically run for two to three years and range in complexity.

One of the strengths we noted with CommCare in the pilot was its flexibility, handling surveys simple and complex survey designs very well. However, it was unclear how long it would take for a ‘typical’ ACIAR project to build the technical capacity to manage the survey building.


Dimagi: Were these concerns real issues?

Hetherington: Yes, with the exception of simple, one-off surveys. The CommCare user-interface makes it very easy to build a once-off survey and with little training you can build a simple survey very easily.

But when it comes to setting up more complex surveys that utilize the case management feature, it does take a bit more time to get your head around it. These require significantly more time to design your survey structure, build in the relationships between different forms, and test and troubleshoot. Although greater time investment is needed for more complex surveys, this is really where you gain the benefits of CommCare. Case management allows you to create a relational database linking information over time to an individual. Additionally, the reduction in survey time and data errors justifies spending more time in the design and build stage as the quality of the information is vastly improved.


Dimagi: If you were to give another ag program three recommendations as they get started with using a mobile solution (in general), what would you tell them?


  1. Apps are not a silver bullet: Apps are particularly useful for structured survey/interviews. While they have the capacity to capture alternative types of information such as videos and audio, for larger surveys, semi-structured interviews may not be practical in relation to data usage, given the cost and availability of internet in some areas. In cases of mixed method research, a combination of app and traditional note taking may be best.
  2. Budgeting time and resources for piloting in the field: While the MAD evaluation has identified a number of factors to consider when adopting apps, there will always be project and location-specific issues that will need to be addressed. This includes identifying the most suitable hardware and internet provider in the region data will be collected, and ensuring the programming and layout of the survey is designed in a user-friendly way for the field staff. Therefore, allowing adequate time to test the survey and equipment before collecting data is critical.
  3. Develop the survey before entering into the app: It can be appealing to build surveys straight into the app software, however, it can be easy to lose sight of the objective of the survey with the additional features. Therefore, having a (near) finished survey that has already been designed on paper can reduce superfluous information being collected.


Dimagi: Any CommCare-specific advice you would offer?


  1. Start simple with your surveys and add as you get more familiar. CommCare has a lot of cool features including GPS, photos, video and QR scanning. These may seem really appealing at the beginning but the novelty can unnecessarily overcomplicate your survey. When starting off, keep it simple figure how you can get the essential pieces of information to reach your objectives or answer your questions. After you get the hang of using CommCare and know what it’s like to use it in the field, this is when you should start exploring these new features.
  2. Engage all project partners early in the discussions around the use of CommCare. Help them understand the benefits and how it works, but also address any concerns they may have about the technology. Things like monitoring field worker performance and accessing the data in near-real-time from a different country may seem threatening to some partners. However, if you have the discussion early and highlight opportunities to improve collaboration and monitoring of information from all stakeholders, I think this will help with the transition to apps.



Dimagi: How are farmers responding to the technology?

Hetherington: The MAD pilot showed a majority of farmers preferred apps to paper surveys as it allowed the survey to be more interactive and provided them with feedback on their farming practices. From what I understand, farmers have largely responded positively to the technology. In many cases this is because there has been a significant decrease in the survey time or the research time provide real time feedback to the field team.

There have been instances where farmers have not been comfortable with the tablets but this may have been due to the field workers not being fully confident with the technology themselves, which translates to farmers being unsure about the technology. However, these are just anecdotes. Hopefully, by the end of the project will have some good evidence about how the projects have responded to the use of tablets.


Dimagi: Do you feel optimistic about the future of mobile data collection technology and the impact it will have on ag projects?

Hetherington: Absolutely! I think what we have seen from the projects that we have worked directly with, and other projects that are already starting to adopt the tech, we will see a lot more of it into the not so distant future. Some of the projects are even doubling up on their apps integrating secondary apps into CommCare, to read Cattle RFID tags with Green stick readers or map out value chains using a drawing tool.

From some of the innovative things with trying to link other applications to survey there is a great deal more to learn about how CommCare and smart devices can add value to projects.

Personally, I have been involved in a couple of training workshops, in Australia and Papua New Guinea, and have enjoyed them a lot. In a previous role I was required to enter piles of paper records into archaic record systems and I was always frustrated by how inefficient and monotonous it was. Once I found out about data collection apps, like CommCare, I thought to myself:

Where have you been all my life.”

The enjoyment I get from the training others in CommCare workshops is that moment of realization from the trainees, when they understand how much better their field work is going to be, cutting out the need for mind-numbing data transcription.

While there are nine “official” projects participating in the MAD evaluation, some of these projects have started to use CommCare in other research projects they are involved with. Others have interacted with colleagues, showing them what they have been able to do. This has resulted in other projects starting to adopt CommCare. Currently this is around 20, but this number is increasing all the time.


Dimagi: What’s ahead for ACIAR and CommCare?

Hetherington: Hopefully, by the end of the MAD evaluation, which will be released in September this year, we will be able to give projects a pretty good idea of what to expect with CommCare and what they need to do to start their CommCare adoption journey. Then, depending on the type of project and the lead time, we will be able to point them in the right direction for information and support.

Additionally, from the nine projects we are actively working with and the dozen or so other projects that are starting to pick up CommCare we hope that there will be a Community of Practice that forms, where projects can share lessons with each other and even survey tools. For instance, gender research is a priority for ACIAR and its projects. Given CommCare can easily share surveys between different teams it would be great to create a forum which ACIAR projects can upload and share their gender surveys with one another. Granted, some specific components of surveys will need to be adapted to each project/context, a large amount of the work, including the building in CommCare can be vastly reduced by having it in an easily shareable format.


Dimagi: Anything else to add?

Hetherington: A special thanks! I just want to acknowledge and thank the enormous effort from all the partners that have been involved in the projects, including:

      • Stu Higgins and Chaseley Ross (AgImpact) for their management and leadership of the project over the last two years
      • The CommCare experts and fantastic trainers, Amber Gregory and Jess Hall (also AgImpact)
      • Dave McGill (University of Melbourne) for his continued input and support into MAD
      • Asha Titus (Australian National University), who is capturing and evaluating all the feedback from the projects
      • Conor Ashleigh, who is filming and documenting the whole story
      • The team from Kopernik, who led the evaluation in the early stages of the MAD evaluation
      • All of the partner project collaborators who are participating in the evaluation
      • And lastly, Dimagi for their contributions and support to the rollout of CommCare across the projects.

A Closer Look at the Projects Involved in the MAD Evaluation

  1. Starting in Pakistan, we have a team led by University of Melbourne who aims to improve the profitability of smallholder farming households, in the Punjab and Sindh provinces of Pakistan, through on-farm efficiency gains and development of dairy and beef market opportunities. This project, “Improving smallholder dairy and beef profitability by enhancing farm production and value chain management in Pakistan” (LPS/2016/011) comes off the back of a long-term engagement with Pakistan and dairy development. The current phase of work intends to reach 5000 farming households across 200 villages during the life of a project.
  2. Moving to Myanmar, Diversification and intensification of rice-based systems in lower Myanmar” (SMCN/2011/046) is a AU$2.6M project and commenced in 2012. The team led by the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) are conducting research on cropping options for the Ayeyarwady Delta, to increase and sustain productivity of both rice-rice and rice-pulse cropping systems and are likely to have engaged more than 2000 rice farmers by the end of the year. The next phase of work will look at integrating rice-fish production systems.  
  3. “Towards more profitable and sustainable vegetable production systems in north-western Vietnam” (AGB/2012/059) is a A$2.3M project led by the University of Adelaide. The project aims to enhance the profitability and sustainability of smallholder vegetable farmers in this region, through improved engagement with high-value markets (domestic and export) and integrated resource- and disease-management practices.  
  4. “Increasing the productivity and market options of smallholder beef cattle farmers in Vanuatu” (LPS/2014/037), also know as Vanuatu Beef, is a A$1.8M project having commenced in October 2015. Vanuatu Beef is led by the University of Queensland and aims to increase the productivity and marketing options of smallholder cattle farmers in Vanuatu; thus contributing to increases in rural household incomes and livelihoods choices, meeting undersupplied existing and emerging beef markets and developing the national beef industry. It is expected 1000 small-holder farmers will directly benefit from the project, with project outcomes reaching an additional 1000.

And finally, Papua New Guinea. ACIAR and the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) are co-funding the Transformative Agriculture and Enterprise Development Program, also known as TADEP. This project has five component projects, looking at cocoa, sweet potato, canarium nut and women’s business acumen. Collectively the projects are worth $22.5M and have an overarching aim to improve the livelihoods of rural men and women in Papua New Guinea. The five projects are all rolling out CommCare and are looking at opportunities to collaborate with each other.

  1. “Improving opportunities for economic development for women smallholders in rural Papua New Guinea” (ASEM/2014/095) aka ‘Family teams’
  2. “Enhancing private sector-led development of the Canarium industry in Papua New Guinea” (FST/2014/099) aka ‘Canarium’
  3. “Developing the Cocoa value chain in Bougainville” (HORT/2014/094) aka ‘Bougainville Cocoa’
  4. “Enterprise-driven transformation of family Cocoa production in East Sepik Madang, New Ireland and Chimbu Provinces of Papua New Guinea” (HORT/2014/096) aka ‘PNG Cocoa’
  5. “Supporting commercial Sweetpotato production and marketing in the Papua New Guinea highlands” (HORT/2014/097) aka ‘Sweetpotato’

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