Mobile Data
Collection: Everything You Need to Know

Mobile data collection is a method of compiling qualitative and quantitative inputs via a mobile device (e.g. mobile phone, tablet, etc.). Collecting data digitally has been proven to increase the speed and accuracy of data collection, service delivery effectiveness, and program staff performance. Features of mobile data collection, such as decision support, form logic, and checklists, improve the quality of the data collected, while also ensuring adherence to data collection and care protocols.

While it is an effective medium, it is also important to treat mobile data collection the same as any other data collection program. That means to follow the whole process of understanding your program objectives, defining your data needs, and identifying and implementing a data collection solution that works for you.

There are eight important areas to cover to ensure a successful mobile data collection program:

What Are
Your Project
Objectives?

Possibly the most important question for you to answer at the start of the process is: What are you trying to accomplish? What objective is your data meant to achieve? Understanding the objectives of your data collection program is about defining the role your data is meant to serve, whether it is to help answer a research question, analyze service delivery performance, or fulfill any number of other objectives.

There are also questions around whether you have any data-related obligations to anyone:

  • Do you need to reach certain benchmarks to receive your next round of funding?
  • Does the government require certain information be tracked?
  • What are your program superiors seeking to understand?

One way to organize these considerations is with a results framework, which places your project objective at the top of a diagram and maps out each of the intermediate results that will add up to its success.

Let's use a malaria campaign to illustrate how this works. Our strategic objective (SO) is to "Decrease malaria-related child mortality rates." From there, we break down the components of the objective into into all its intermediate results (I.R.) and sub-results.

A few example intermediate results might could be:

Intermediate Result #1 (I.R. 1): "Percentage of households sprayed with insecticide."

Intermediate Result #2 (I.R. 2): "Percentage of households using insecticidal bed nets."

Additional sub-results would follow that can break down each intermediate result into further detail, including additional objectives to achieve and the tools we would use to achieve them.

Your organization might not need a results framework to justify your program for the purposes of funding or additional support. However, a results framework still establishes your project’s objective as the core focus of your program and helps you think through all the ways you can review its progress and ultimately achieve success.

Understanding your foundational objectives is paramount to ensuring a successful program, let alone determining the efficiency of your mobile data collection process. Those objectives should be the core of your entire program. They should be clearly defined and written down for anyone in your organization to review.

Learn more about your project objectives

What Is Your
Data Collection
Process?

It can be tempting to conclude that a mobile data collection tool will solve all the problems you currently face with your data collection program. Except first, you have to know what that program looks like, what its strengths and weaknesses are, and how the information flows in the field.

This process will reveal things about where your data comes from, who has access to it, and how it is collected and stored — all key pieces of information that will inform the design and implementation of any new system you choose. Most mobile data collection tools will claim to speed up the process and make it more efficient, and that's probably true — but only when you know which parts of your current process could benefit from those improvements the most.

Gillian Javetski, COO & Co-Founder of TecSalud — an ICT4D company in Bogotá and Cambridge — explains:

When you have to map out your project from square one, it opens your eyes to gaps you didn't see earlier and that technology may not be able to fix. All of a sudden, the conversation may shift from 'What do we want this technology to do' to 'Wait, actually, is the problem in our workflow?'

An information flow diagram is most often what we use when mapping how information flows through an existing data collection process. It typically starts with what data is being collected (e.g. quantitative data vs qualitative data) and follows through from how it is collected (e.g. paper forms vs mobile device) to where it is stored and how it is shared from the bottom to the top of your organization (e.g. reporting presentation vs online dashboard).

This is the most basic version of an information flow diagram.

Data from beneficiaries is collected by community health workers (or other data collectors) using a mobile data collection tool that wirelessly sends data to the cloud. There, it is accessed by a program manager or analyst on a desktop platform.

Of course, this version doesn't include what type of data it is or how that program analyst shares reports with their superiors, funders, or the government. However, that is exactly the type of information that is covered in more complex information flow diagrams.

Two key questions to ask when designing your information flow diagram are (1) What are the major activities or milestones that occur in this process? And (2) What are the major component types (e.g. actions/activities, documents, decisions, etc.)? The answers to these questions are like the pieces to your puzzle. Once you collect them all, start with the outside and work your way in. In other words, begin with your data source and your final output and then fill out the pieces in-between.

Learn more about your data collection process

What Are
Your Data
Needs?

With the number of features mobile data collection platforms tout, it is often difficult to discern what you actually need and what your team can live without. So how can you break through the noise to focus on what you need?

The key to selecting a platform that serves your needs precisely is understanding your data requirements. A clear understanding of your data requirements will help you narrow your focus and identify the right mobile data collection platform for your project.

The first step in this process is to make a list of what you data you know you need. Sometimes, you will have existing documents to give you a head start, such as results frameworks, M&E frameworks, or requests from supervisors and funders. Other times, you will need to start from scratch. In either case, you should outline an initial list of data requirements, and then stress test that list to identify other factors. There are a number of questions you can ask that will help expand the list and describe each variable in more depth.

How to categorize your data

Most often in mobile data collection and service delivery programs, your data can be broken down into two categories:

(1) Program performance metrics tell you how well you are meeting your project objectives. They help answer questions like, "How many beneficiaries have you reached?" and "What percentage of your beneficiaries have improved health outcomes or crop yield?"

(2) Worker Performance Metrics are the best indicators for how well your workers are performing their duties and how much they are contributing to the success of the project.

These categories help explain which aspect of your program the data affects.

How to describe your data

Once your have organized a list of your data requirements by category, flesh out their attributes and characteristics. There are numerous questions you can ask to help with this:

Are you searching for logitudinal data—that is to say, are you looking to update the same metrics from the same source over time? This type of data requires a feature called case management, with the alternative being long hours spent on data entry to collate your results.

Does your data require outside data sources? Many governments have regular reporting on health, income, agriculture, and many other sectors. This is helpful when you are trying to compare your data to national averages, for example.

Does one variable depend on another? For instance, before asking details about a patient's treatment history, make sure that patient has actually received treatment. When you ask a patient if she has ever received medical treatment, and she replies, "no," you can use skip logic to avoid asking about vaccinations, medication, or other medical treatment.

There are many more questions you can ask to help describe the characteristics of your variables, but as with everything else, they will depend on your project's objectives. All of the characteristics you define will help you later, as you determine the right tool for your needs and structure your mobile data collection forms.

How to account for environmental factors

Once you have listed, organized, and described all the variables you need to collect, you still need to account for where you are collecting data and who you are collecting it from. One of our partners, Pro Mujer, recommends beginning this effort with the beneficiaries. By putting them first, you make sure they are the ones experiencing the greatest impact. Understand the data they can provide and the environment they live in to best provide the services you hope to offer.

Here are a few questions to consider when examining your project's environmental factors:

With the myriad features and tools available for mobile data collection, developing a clear, written summary of all the variables you need will help keep you focused. It won't surprise you to know that data is the most important piece of any mobile data collection program, so a comprehensive understanding of the data you need to collect is vital.

Learn more about your data requirements

How to Choose the
Right Mobile Data
Collection Solution

While the benefits of implementing a mobile data collection solution may be clearer today than ever before, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Indeed, depending on the circumstances, what works for one program may not work for yours, and understanding the core benefits of these systems will help you determine which features might help your program and how.

We used to run paper-based monitoring and evaluation systems, which were inefficient and painful to manage. [Mobile data collection] made our lives easier.

Prachi Patel, CMS India

Why Mobile Instead of Paper?

While paper might be the standard for collecting data at many organizations, there are significant issues associated with a paper-based data collection system. The most prominent challenges include:

High error rates

Human error, such as poor handwriting or typos, mean the data collected is incorrect.

Slow reporting and delays in data entry

Users need additional time to return to a computer and manually enter data.

A lack of flexibility in deploying programmatic changes

Each update to a paper form requires reprinting and distribution.

Disruptions to beneficiary interactions:

Frontline workers often spend similar amounts of time speaking with beneficiaries and navigating their paper forms and guides.

With the proper implementation, each of these issues can be minimized with the use of a mobile data collection tool.

Depending on the issues you face, the switch to a mobile platform can clearly improve your program and even lead to significant cost savings. One World Bank study found that the average survey cost was reduced by 71.3% when adopting a mobile data collection solution over paper. Frontline workers have also indicated that as a result of their use of a mobile data collection tool, their credibility in the community increased. Given these benefits, mobile data collection might be an answer for your program. Before you start evaluating potential solutions, you should first outline your data requirements, which will help you select the right tool.

How Do Your Data Requirements Affect Your Mobile Data Collection Tool?

Mobile data collection tools have immense potential but there isn't a single solution that will work for everyone. As you might expect, different tools offer different features.

Dimagi's User Engagement Manager Marshall Daly recommends evaluating your data needs before you start looking at different market offerings.

"Like any other data collection program, start with the data you want, and then find a tool that allows you to collect that data," Daly said.

Even after identifying your data requirements, selecting the right platform is often a challenge, and there are several points you should consider throughout the selection process:

What format do you need to present your data in? Certain data formats (e.g. audio, video, GPS coordinates, etc.) require certain features in order to capture them.

Will you need to update your data? If your program requires that workers revisit data sources (beneficiaries, locations, etc.) to collect updated information, your platform should allow you to link and review multiple data entries with a feature such as case management.

Who has access to your data? Some mobile data collection tools allow for multiple predefined users to view and update data from a single case, enhancing efficiency and security.

How do you need to share your data? Think about whether you need a simple export to Excel, more complex data visualization features, or even full platform integrations with specialized reporting software.

Not only does the type of data you collect affect the tools and features you need to collect it, but its characteristics and those of its environment will also be important considerations when deciding on the right mobile data collection solution for your team.

How Does Your Program and Its Environment Affect Your Mobile Data Collection Tool?

Mobile data collection tools range in price, some are harder to maintain than others, and they all have different strengths and weaknesses. Beyond the features that deal with what data you collect, look at how the structure of your program or the characteristics of the region you work in might affect your platform needs. Here are some considerations:

How large is your data collection program? Certain tools limit the number of end users for lower-tier subscriptions, but may offer strong supervisory functionality for larger deployments on higher-tier accounts. We recommend investing in a tool that can grow with your program, but the most important thing is that you consider how a prospective tool can handle the scale of your program.

How experienced is your team with mobile data collection? Make sure you use a platform that matches the experience of your team. If you have a dedicated software team, you might be able to develop your own custom solution based on an open source platform. If your team is just you, and you have limited technical experience, there are simple pre-made surveys and easy drag-and-drop form builder tools.

Will you have an internet connection while in the field? If not, find out what the offline capabilities of your chosen platform are. Many platforms allow you to record data on the device and upload when connectivity returns. Some even allow for offline case management, so you can store data from prior visits on the device and update even without an internet connection.

What languages do your end users and beneficiaries speak? Look for a tool that allows you to easily translate a given form. Some tools allow you to select a language for your application depending on your audience or even allow for audio playback of the text on screen for low-literacy users.

Mobile data collection tools on their own are not silver bullets. They cannot fix a poorly-designed program, and a solution designed for a basic survey will not aid your complex case management program. Indeed, you will not get the full value of a complex mobile tool without a technically competent program manager, and in the wrong environment, mobile tools can even be a detriment to frontline workers.

However, combining the important considerations shared above around your data, workers’ needs, and project environment with the right mobile data collection tool will improve the accuracy and speed of your data collection, help your team do its best work, and ultimately, amplify the impact of your program.

Learn more about how to evaluate data collection tools

How to Establish
Data Collection
Standards

Consistent, clean data is the gold standard that every data collection program targets. Achieving this standard starts with careful consideration of the design of program content, delivery, and data storage and security.

Repeating the process of defining your data collection standards as you iterate on your program (after the preliminary design, the pilot phase, and initial data collection) will ensure that your data continues to serve your needs.

What is content design?

Content design is about developing a survey or assessment that generates responses to best inform the goals of your project. This involves setting up clear questions that avoid bias, maintain consistency in phrasing, and are culturally appropriate.

Spending a bit of time planning and strategically designing the content (e.g. questions, surveys, etc.) that will be used in your project will help ensure that you follow a systematic process collecting data from your target beneficiaries, from the beginning to the end of the data collection period. It is not just about putting all the questions you can think of in the survey.

With a consistent, well-thought-out design, results that emerge from data collection will be cleaner and more easily compared with results collected at a different time point or even by other programs and projects with similar objectives.

Avoiding bias in phrasing and questions

To capture the full range of possible answers, the phrasing of your questions should remain neutral, which can be easier said than done. Depending on the topic, it can require extensive knowledge of the subject, including public perception, power dynamics, and even general controversies within the field.

Check out this Catalog of Biases in Questionnaires for more examples

Another area to pay close attention to is the phrasing of questions that are intended to elicit more subjective responses (i.e. opinions, feelings, or beliefs). The way you pose the question can influence beneficiaries' responses in ways that may be unintended.

Addressing cultural expectations

Cultural references and word selection in survey questions may lead to variability in interpretations of the questions when applied to different populations.

A common example that would increase the accuracy of your data collection would be if your project targeted beneficiaries in rural Tanzania, you may consider including a multiple choice question inquiring about the beneficiaries’ languages spoken at home. The choices could include Kiswahili, English, and potentially other dialects based on prior knowledge of the population you are working with.

Considerations like these should be balanced with the overall goal of the program, as a culturally-specific reference may help get a reliable answer for one beneficiary, but if the sample is ever expanded, then you may run into issues.

Using validated surveys

Why recreate a survey instrument when there may be one that already exists that is well-aligned with your project objectives? There are databases of existing, validated surveys that would allow you to reliably assess and compare your results with those of other projects in the broader community. For example, RAND Health provides free online access to their surveys covering a variety of health topics.

Find the right questions for your program with these validated surveys

What is delivery design?

How you deliver a question is just as important as how you phrase your question. Determining the optimal delivery method is all about how to best structure and disseminate your survey. The survey structure and mode of communication are the primary considerations in this category.

Survey Structure

The structure of a survey, including the sequencing of questions and their available responses, will affect the outcomes of your survey. Here are a few considerations for how you might recognize and solve these situations:

Do certain questions depend on others?

If you have questions that will only make sense within the context of a previous answer, you can use skip logic (also known as display conditions) to control when they appear. This tactic is important for collecting clear, consistent data.

Which questions are required?

With paper forms, you will find that important fields are often left completely blank, which can render the whole submission useless, but with mobile data collection, you can require that vital questions be answered. Find the right balance of required questions to make sure you are capturing all of the data that are essential to your project, while also ensuring that the survey is not too long or cumbersome to complete.

What type of answers are you expecting?

When developing a structured-entry survey, you may want to consider whether a given question accepts only one response or multiple responses. While paper forms cannot enforce the number of responses that a respondent can provide, an electronic survey can. By using what are called validation conditions, you can ensure your enumerators correct mistakes on site that they might not otherwise notice until it is too late.

Mode of Communication

Are enumerators reading questions off a paper form or are respondents answering directly on a mobile device? This consideration is focused mostly on the user experience and how it can affect the reliability of their responses.

For instance, if you have a short survey, and your respondents have access to smartphones, you may want to consider an SMS-based data collection program. However, if you are unsure of your audience's access to mobile phones, you may unknowingly restrict and bias your sample, based on the type of person who has access to a mobile phone in that population (e.g. male heads of households).

Understanding how each mode of communication is used in your target location (and the norms and power dynamics associated with those types of interactions) will help you account for any bias as you design the delivery of your surveys and programs.

Storage and Security

Certain sectors lean more heavily on this consideration than others. For some beneficiary populations and projects, such as those working with HIV patient data, privacy concerns may be much more important than others. You might find a few relevant answers as part of your evaluation of your existing data collection program, but understanding where the data you collect goes is vitally important.

The actual considerations will depend on the sector you are working in. For instance, projects in the public health domain might require you to consider patient confidentiality and HIPAA compliance. The FDA has shared guidelines for the use of electronic health record data that may be helpful for your project.

As you consider the storage and privacy of your data, ask yourself the following:

  • Does the dataset need to be de-identified before exporting and sharing?
  • Do I need to protect certain data after it is entered?
  • Who can have access to the data?
  • How long can the data be stored?

All of these considerations will be specific to the industry or sector that you work in, while others will depend on local laws or even partner organizations’ codes of conduct. Make sure you are familiar with the requirements of all parties involved before you begin collecting data.

Learn more about data collection standards

How to Design & Test
Your Mobile Data
Collection Tool

Building a mobile data collection solution that meets the needs of all players in a complex system can be a daunting task. It's easy to get bogged down in the details of the workflows and end up building something that does not align with the project vision or objectives you defined at the start.

The goal of this phase is to translate the holistic understanding of your program that you have developed over the prior phases into the key pain points and opportunities for your mobile data collection solution.

Design your mobile data collection solution

The process of designing your solution involves both outlining the individual user stories your app should address as well as the actual structure of the modules and features it will offer. Then, you can build a prototype to see how your users will react to this new tool.

Identify your user stories

Your first step is to identify the users and user stories to build your solution around. These should be centered around the biggest pain points and opportunities for impact you identified in scoping–not just around the loudest voice in the room.

Here are a few key questions to consider while developing this list of user stories. These questions should help open your eyes to the potential impact of your solution:

  1. How will my solution change existing processes and roles?
  2. How will those changes affect each player in the system?
  3. Are those changes addressing pain points and improving workflows, or just complicating things?

Validate your user stories and the answers to these questions with your team before you start designing the technical structure of your solution to avoid building a solution that is misaligned with your project and end users' needs. Are these experiences they would like to be improved? Can your program provide feedback to help? Is your proposed solution going to conflict with any other responsibilities they hold? They should be able to answer these questions so you can make sure your new mobile data collection solution will be well received and happily used.

Design the structure of your system

Once you have your user stories validated, it's time to translate these into your app's module and form structure. This is important to do this before you start building to ensure your vision is possible with the set of features at your disposal. Essentially, it is about figuring out precisely what your app is supposed to do and how it will do it.

Approach this task systematically by starting with a simple table like the one below. By translating the user stories you have defined and validated into individual requirements, you answer the question of what you need your app to do. Those requirements then become a summary of modules (or group of forms), individual forms, and features, which define how your app performs its tasks:

Prototype your tool

Once your app is mapped out in terms of actual features and app functionality, you can build a prototype that brings your design to life. Once again, you should validate this step with your end users: Does your design actually address the workflow challenges you identified during scoping? Did you understand the participant registration process correctly, or does your design have gaps?

One option is to build your prototype in the data collection platform you plan to use. This approach ensures your workflows are truly possible with the set of features available to you, but it also requires that you know how to build on the platform before starting the process. Alternatively, you can also use a tool like Moqups, which allows you to build interactive mockups that look and feel like a real, functioning app.

Check out our recommended tool for prototyping, Moqups

Plan for development

You are almost there! Before you dive into the creation of the app itself, outline your approach to understand when you will include which features, and what development methodology your team will use.

Often, teams forget to establish these items before getting started, including knowing how to approach the build phase, communicating with their team, and defining timelines. Avoid setbacks by establishing a clear process and guidelines around the app build.

Make your versioning plan

The first thing you should realize in the build phase is that not everything will always fit in the first version of your app.

Think carefully about what is time sensitive or a priority as well as the level of effort associated with including certain criteria. You need to map out a versioning plan to identify what modules and features will be included in each version of your app.

However, versioning plans should not just be focused on what is possible to include in any particular version. Also, consider which features or flows make the best introduction to the tool for new users and which might be too confusing for them to take on from the start.

Sometimes it makes sense to introduce a certain feature set that you know the user will be able to understand quickly and wait until they are comfortable before introducing new functionality. For instance, if your users have never had a mobile device before, it might make sense to start with text-only inputs and withhold functionality like image capture until they become more familiar with the basic functionality of the device.

Decide on an app development methodology

The next step is about determining how you will build your app. Keep your team organized and focused on their assigned workstreams. One app development methodology that we found can help with this is Agile (also known as Scrum). Agile’s principles of incremental development and constant iteration help ensure you are staying focused on your project priorities, and validating along the way. JIRA is a software project management software built to support agile teams and processes.

Whatever methodology you choose, make sure roles, responsibilities, and processes are very clear to the team, and that everyone agrees. Then establish mechanisms to ensure your team sticks to them.

We recommend using a project management software like JIRA (above) to support agile teams and processes.

Whatever methodology you chose, make sure roles, responsibilities, and processes are very clear to the team, and that everyone agrees. Then establish mechanisms to ensure your team sticks to them.

Build your mobile data collection solution

Now, the fun begins! It’s time to dive into the mobile data collection solution you selected and build the mobile application that your team will use in the field.

Build your outline and fill it in

Time to build! With the overall structure and workflow that you designed and validated in the Design phase, start integrating the more detailed content and logic into your forms. What are the questions you wrote when you established your data collection standards? Add them in! Are there any documents, videos, or messages your app will need to share at certain times? Put those in, too!

If you are using CommCare, our form builder offers additional features beyond basics (e.g. skip logic/display conditions and validation conditions), which you might consider adding to your app for improved user experience:

In a module case list

Registration from the case list

Make the registration form directly accessible from a case list, so the user can go from searching for a patient to registering a new one seamlessly.

"Search Only" properties in the case list

Even if you only display a few properties on your case list, you can still search by others (e.g. District) that will be important to your program. "Search Only" properties give the user more search and filtering options without overcrowding the phone screen.

Icons in the case list

Use conditional icons in the case list to visually highlight important details about each case.

In your forms

Calculations in hidden values

Use hidden values (a special question type) in your form to carry out calculations that are not visible to the user. For example, calculate a patient’s age in years and months based on the date of birth question asked during patient registration, or calculate the next visit date based on today's date.

Define default values

Pre-load an answer to a question in your form by loading a case property, calculation, or text into the default value field. This helps the user out by suggesting a response but allowing them to edit it in the form.

Working with multiple app builders

Sometimes, programs are fortunate enough to have multiple people working on their app. Unfortunately, this can also lead to confusion and versioning issues. Our team has a few suggestions when it comes to working with multiple app builders:

Define clear workstream owners and divide up the app building accordingly. Most tools do not allow multiple builders at once, so be clear about who will be working in the platform and when.

Make and document builds as frequently as possible. Quick, but incremental updates will make it easier to spot and solve any bugs that crop up. Check to see if your platform allows you to control versions to see who made what updates and when.

Set clear communication mechanisms with your team. Daily or every-other-day stand-up meetings for quick check-ins are helpful.

Build in consistent feedback mechanisms from your users. This will help keep a centralized database of feedback so that all app builders are aware of their users' frustrations and suggestions. This is especially important when your users and app development team are in different locations and those conversations cannot happen face to face.

Test your solution

While the typical QA process is crucial to ensure the app you develop functions as you expect, user acceptance testing (or UAT) validates whether your expectations will actually solve the problems your users face.

Receiving consistent feedback throughout the app building process (in both the design and build phases) is vital to developing a solution that truly solves the problems you are trying to tackle and helps you avoid any surprises when you test the final product.

Once your first version is complete, but before launch, you should test the system in its entirety with real users in the setting in which the tool will be used. This is user acceptance testing.

From the hundreds of applications we have helped develop, we have a number of tips to share around how to run a quality and insightful UAT process:

Identify the right users. Make sure you have a representative sample of your users to ensure that everyone who ends up using the app is accounted for.
a) High & low performing
b) High & low digital literacy
c) Rural and urban

Ask open-ended, rather than leading, yes/no questions. Just like the questions you ask in the app, the goal of user testing is to uncover clear, unbiased feedback on how you might improve your platform.

Observe, don't demo. You want to see the users interact with the system in as realistic an environment as possible, which means you are not there to hand-hold. See what flows they get caught up on and which go smoothly. This will be representative of when the users you might never meet get their hands on your app.

Consolidate observations and feedback. Organizing your feedback in a structured way helps to get a clear picture of the trends. It also ensures that you can easily compare and contrast the feedback with that on future iterations of the app.

Sort through the noise. Develop a clear idea of your priorities and how the feedback you receive aligns with them. You cannot incorporate every change request, so have a decision-making process that all stakeholders agree on, and stick to it.

Factor enough time in your project plan to incorporate feedback, and QA your app thoroughly again before deploying.

Along with testing the effectiveness of the system you built in the eyes of your users, UAT helps test how the technology fits into your overall project objectives. The user testing phase is a great opportunity to review everything from your results framework and information flow diagram (or data collection plan outline) to your data requirements and user stories to ensure that your new mobile data collection tool delivers on everything you expected from it.

Learn more about building and testing your solution

How to Implement
Your Program & Train
Your Team

We’ll be straight with you: Actually launching your program can be the hardest part. In fact, 70% of the World Bank's information and communications technologies for development (ICT4D) programs have failed. And finding out why can be a tricky test. Fortunately, we have the experience of over 500 projects to help inform the answer.

For one, digital literacy is often low among the frontline workers where mobile data collection tools are introduced.

Another reason is that the interpretation of technology varies from person to person and depends on the context: The way an experienced ICT program manager sees a particular data collection app is likely different from how the community health worker will approach the solution.

Use the information you have about your audience and environment to transform your new tool into a successful program. Realize it is not the app that will solve all your problems: It is the people who use it who matter most.

Testing Your Mobile Data Collection App

For many users, a mobile data collection program will be their first interaction with mobile technology. You want this introduction to be a positive one.

The first step to ensuring a smooth launch is to make sure your application is finalized and fully tested at least a week before training begins. Spend sufficient time making sure there are no surprises for users when they start using the application. They should not go into the field working on a different app from the one they were trained on.

Managing Your Devices

In one of our national projects in India, we realized the importance of device management as soon as we began scaling. Indeed, some states required 45,000 devices be made ready for use within a matter of days.

To achieve this feat, we had to consider a few key things:

Choosing the Right Device

Your app should not only function on the device — it should thrive.

Problems like slowness and app crashes should already be addressed during design and testing. However, while smaller projects might be able to design for a specific model, apps for larger scale may need to work for a wider range of device specifications.

Over the years, we have tested CommCare across a range of Android devices and summarized our experience with each. The more complex and customized your application, the more important it is that you perform these tests with your own app to make sure you find the right device(s) for your program.

Device Preparation

As the number of users increases, the complexity of device preparation increases exponentially.

Smaller projects might not have as much trouble preparing their devices for the field, but preparing a device for field use is still a tedious job.

When a new device is opened, it takes a few minutes for the initial setup. Often, there is a mandatory operating system update, which adds a few more minutes. Once the device is ready, the data collection app needs to be installed.

For projects with only a few users, this is not too much of an issue. However, for projects with hundreds (or thousands) of users, this process can take weeks, with each device requiring up to 45 minutes for complete setup.

To avoid last-minute scrambling, large programs should identify a specific person to lead the activity who is accountable for delivering prepared devices to the training / rollout team.

Phone Usage Policies

Don't skip this step. Phone usage policies are crucial, and we recommend them for all of our projects. These policies determine device handling, including what should be done in case of lost or broken devices and theft.

They might also cover how much mobile data the device will have or what apps users are allowed to install.

Precisely what these policies cover will depend on the nature of the project, but they will help in setting expectations with your users to avoid confusion and disputes when an incident does occur.

Once your devices are ready for action, it's time to introduce them to your team.

Training Your Team

Training is the most important part of implementing a data collection tool. This is where workers get to know how their work will change, what new skills and behaviors they need to develop, and which old approaches will no longer be helpful.

This is also where they are introduced to the data collection tool.

How soon your workers will become comfortable with the mobile data collection tool will first depend on how comfortable they are with mobile devices in general. Their digital literacy is dependent on a number of factors, but it is important to customize your training sessions to your participants.

A few things to keep in mind when planning your sessions:

Choose the right way to train

Effective adult learning involves specific techniques. Experiential learning, an understanding of a topic’s importance, and freedom to learn in their own way are a few tactics that are helpful during mobile data collection app training. Keep in mind your participants' backgrounds while choosing which of these techniques is the best fit.

Deliver the training

We cannot stress enough the importance of the connection between trainer and trainee. Our trainings have been most successful when participants have been able to interact with the trainer without inhibition. These are some of the tricks that have helped us in the past in building that connection. (Fun trick: Many of our trainees bring candy to sweeten the sessions.)

Reinforcement

Post-training reinforcement helps a great deal in retention of newly-learned skills and knowledge by filling any gaps that remained from the initial training. Two ways in which we reinforce our training are:

Repetition

We conduct refresher trainings at regular intervals.

Applicability

We develop support mechanisms to guide workers as they use the application in real time.

Considering the nature of development projects, implementing a data collection tool is not an easy task. It not only requires a functioning technology platform but a reliable operations team, as well. Implementation involves elements of design (during app building and testing), logistics management (with device management), and behavior change (through training and constant support) that an application alone cannot change.

Find out more about how to implement your program & train your team

How to Sustain Your
Mobile Data
Collection Program

To ensure all the effort put into the implementation of the program pays off, you must set up a system to support your users. They should have proper resources and supervision, incentives to continue their usage, and if they have thoughts or suggestions about the program, opportunities to be heard.

Develop a Strong Support System

The importance of a good support system in sustaining a mobile data collection program cannot be overstated. Ensuring that responsive channels exist for users to flag issues they might face — related to the application, device, or data — is important to build trust in the system.

First point of contact. In-depth user manuals (printed, digital, or otherwise) for each section of your application are a useful resource and should be a first point of reference for most users. These manuals can contain information about application features, how to access them, and (depending on your needs) programmatic guidelines.

Channels of support. Make your users aware and encourage them to use the support channels you give them. The end user training before launch is a good first opportunity to introduce them to what support is available to them. From user manuals to support personnel, training sessions, and refresher courses your program should develop a variety of ways to offer your workers support and sustain their usage.

Program Scale. The scale of the support needed is another factor to consider: A single designated support person can handle a 50-user pilot, but a national-level project with thousands of users might require something more robust like district-level help desks or a central call center. In both cases, the designated support person(s) should have:

  • A good working knowledge of the application
  • Admin rights to look into the system backend
  • Strong communication skills

If you want your workers to use your platform, you need to make sure they know how and have the tools they need. A well-executed and diverse support system should ensure your team is always performing at its best.

Involve Your Supervisors

A clear view of the entire process, including both program and worker performance metrics, is crucial for your supervisors keep the program running. With paper forms, most of their time would be spent on tracking down data and following up with users. Now that they have a mobile data collection program, this information should already be at their fingertips, allowing them to focus their efforts on supporting the workers who need the most help.

A sample worker activity report in CommCare.

Supervisors should review broadstroke details of the work that the end users are doing, including the number of forms submitted per user per day, to help measure activity on the application. The metrics they use to monitor worker performance should be designed as per the nature of the project and agreed upon between workers and supervisors prior to implementation.

Incentivize the Use of Your Application

If the users are not given sufficient incentive to use the application, then you should expect usage to decline once the novelty of the program wears off. There are a number of ways to ensure your team continues to use your tool for the duration of your program:

Save them time and effort

Reduction in the amount of time and effort required from a user is a great way to ensure sustained usage. If they understand that it is easier for them to fulfill their reporting requirements via the data collection app compared to using paper forms, they will be more than happy to keep using it.

Send them reminders

The implementation of reminders and nudges from supervisors into the app will help keep users on task and aware of their responsibilities. Whether you do it with a simple SMS or during weekly or monthly check-ins, it is always a good idea to let you team know what they need to do next.

Show them their impact

When users understand the impact they have, they are more likely to continue to participate. Show them the number of children they helped vaccinate or the number of institutional deliveries they carried out.

Give them feedback

Regular feedback and engagement through supervisors is another way to motivate your users. The immediate availability of a wide range of data should allow your supervisors to extract insights on the users' strengths and weaknesses.

To sum up, closing the feedback loop by offering tools to improve their performance will help ensure that your team continues to use your application. And the more reasons you give your users to pick up the app, the better.

Encourage and Incorporate Feedback

Consistent interaction with your end users is key to improving your data collection application over time.

After all, those who use the tool will have the most valuable insight into its strengths and weaknesses. Listen to them as much and as often as possible to understand how you might improve both your tool and your program outcomes.

Feedback will come in on considerations as big as new use cases and functionality that field workers might be interested in or as small as specific feature bugs. Taking this feedback and reviewing how you might design it into your platform is crucial to an engaged and effective workforce.

There are a numerous ways you can collect feedback. The most direct way is through your program supervisors. General check-ins and and feedback collection should already be part of their responsibilities, so expanding that feedback to the new tool should be a logical fit. However, it should not be taken for granted that the supervisors are aware of this, so not only should they be made aware of how their workers are meant to be using the new tool, but they should be empowered to understand how it works so the feedback they receive will make sense.

You might also incorporate some indirect feedback collection methods, such as SMS surveys, or Interactive Voice Response (IVR) calls. These have the advantage of being very scalable and require very few resources to implement.

Of course, however you receive feedback, it is the act of listening to your users and the understanding that your platform is never complete that will help improve the tool itself, as well as the overall impact of your program.

Learn about how to sustain your mobile data collection program