Mobile Data
Collection: Everything you need to know to improve
the speed and accuracy of your data collection

Mobile data collection is a method of compiling qualitative and quantitative information with the help of a mobile device (e.g. mobile phone, tablet, etc.).

This approach 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. To make sure you’re ready, check out our guide to data collection.

Download the complete guide to mobile data collection

There's so much more to mobile data collection than what we could include on this page. That's why we made a complete guide of more than 30 pages of advice, insights, tips, and examples.

1 How to Choose the Right
Mobile Data Collection Tool

When it comes to implementing mobile data collection, there is no one-size-fits-all solution.

Depending on the circumstances, what works for one program may not work for yours, so understanding the core benefits of these systems can help you determine which features might help your program and how.

Compare mobile apps with paper

While it may be the standard method of data collection at many organizations, there are significant issues associated with a paper based data approach, such as high error rates, slow reporting, inflexibility in deployment, and difficulties in beneficiary interactions and supervision.

With the proper implementation, each of these issues can be minimized with the use of a mobile data collection tool. Such mobile apps can validate data upon entry, incorporate complex mobile form features, automatically deploy updates, and advise frontline workers and their supervisors on the best course of action.

The switch to mobile data collection can improve the speed and accuracy of your data collection, reduce costs by as much as 70% , and improve your frontline workers’ credibility in the community

“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, Manager of Technology for Development, CMS India

Understand your data requirements before selecting a mobile data collection tool

Mobile data collection tools have immense potential but here 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.”

Your data requirements will indicate whether you need an app that can capture GPS coordinates or video. Listing out your data requirements will also help you determine whether you need to track data over time, and determine what data access privileges you may need.

Consider your program’s environmental implications

Mobile data collection solutions 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.

Considerations like the scale of your program, the digital literacy of your team, and the mobile connectivity in your project region will all tell you something about how to choose (and eventually design) your mobile data collection app.

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.

However, the right mobile data collection application 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.

Find the Right Mobile Data Collection Tool

2 How to Design Your
Mobile Surveys

The proceess of designing you app involves both (1) defining who will use your app and (2) determining how to best structure the app with the right modules and features. A well-thought out design will make the building and testing phase that much easier.

Identify your user stories

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

Ask your team:

  • How will this app change existing processes and roles?
  • How will those changes affect each player in the system?
  • Are those changes addressing pain points and improving workflows, or just complicating things?

They should be able to answer these questions in a way that indicates whether your new mobile data collection tool aligns with original objectives of your program.

Understand the precise needs for your application and its implications on everyone in the program.

Design the structure of your system

Once you validate your user stories, it is time to translate these into your app's module and form structure. This is important to do before you start building to ensure your vision is possible with the set of features at your disposal. Essentially, it is about confirming whether your chosen platform can do precisely what you need it to.

So while these user stories are an important start, you still need to map out how they actually look in your app, in the form of modules (groups of forms), individual forms, and features, which define how your app performs tasks.

Check out a sample form structure in our Guide to Survey Design.

Develop your content & delivery design

By now, you know what data you need to collect, but the way you actually solicit it might still be in question. Content and delivery design are how you determine the phrasing and actual delivery of the questions you need to ask.

Content design focuses on developing a survey of clear questions that avoid bias, maintain consistency in phrasing, and are culturally appropriate. Delivery design is all about how to best structure and disseminate your survey (e.g. order of questions, requried questions, mode of communication, etc.).

Spending a bit of time planning and strategically designing the content that will be used in your surveys, as well as how those surveys will reach your beneficiaries, will help ensure that you follow a systematic process collecting data from the beginning to the end of data collection period.

It is not about putting all the questions you can think of in the survey and sending it to everyone you can. With a consistent, well thought out design, results that emerge from data collection will be cleaner and more reliable.

Get more advice on mobile survey design

3 How to Build Your Mobile
Data Collection App

Once you understand the structure of your app, it's time to begin the building phase. This includes a clear understanding of how you will approach development, an outline of what functionality each version of app will incorporate, and some key features of mobile data collection tools you'll want to include.

Plan for development

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), whose 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.

Align with your team on your approach to app development — we recommend Agile.

Draft a versioning plan

A tough realization for many organizations 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 and 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.

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.

Build your outline and fill it in

Now it’s 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 unbiased questions you wrote when you designed your surveys? Add them in! Are there any documents, videos, or messages your app will need to share at certain times? Put those in, too!

Most versioning plans will start with a prototype for some initial testing. You can build your prototype in the data collection platform you plan to use or in a tool like Moqups , which allows you to build interactive mockups that look and feel like a real, functioning app.

Once your prototype is designed, validate it 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?

Learn more about how to build your app

4 How to Test Your Mobile
Data Collection App

Receiving consistent feedback throughout the app building process (in both the design and build phases) is vital to building an app that truly solves the problems relevant to your users and beneficiaries and helps you avoid any surprises when you test the final product.

This can be feedback from your end uesrs to understand which workflows make sense and which they are confused by. Or it can be feedback from your tech team explaining how and why certain aspects of the way you built your app just aren't quite working. Pilots remain a great way to collect feedback on the entire process of developing and deploying your program before launching more widely.

Here's our advice on how to collect all the feedback you will need to make sure your mobile data collection program launches smoothly and collects the clean data you expect of it.

QA process

The quality assurance (QA) process can often be the most headache inducing phase of testing, but at the end of the day, you need to make sure the app you have in your head actually works in real life.

This means building a dedicated QA period into your timeline and holding yourself to it. Documenting your use cases and all the workflows you designed will make designing your test plan that much easier and even help you prioritize which tests to run when you inevitably run short on time.

Give your team an app they will love by making sure it actually works when they get their hands on it.

Get more advice on the QA process

Work through your test plan to ensure your most important workflows are functioning properly.

Usability testing

Usability (or user acceptance) testing is the process of putting a functioning app in front of your end users and seeing what they think. The concept is quite simple, but the execution is a bit more nuanced.

From selection bias to asking leading questions, there are many ways that your approach to collecting feedback can lead your users to give you the answers you want. As tempting as this can be, you need to make sure that the feedback you collect is as unbiased as possible.

Learn more about usability testing

Pilots

Pilots are the time and place where we get our technology right and ensure we are developing something useful for the user. They are when we establish and test processes that are required for the long term success of a program. The tension is that pilots are meant to be both a special, focused program effort that may differ from the final program, as well as a process to get us ready to scale and succeed in that same final program.

Pilots help test the app itself and the new processes you introduce along with it, and they're useful both at the beginning of a program and at any point during it to make sure things continue running the way you intend.

Testing is a key way to ensure that after selecting atool, designing the structure of your app, and building a prototype, you have still placed the end users and beneficiaries at the center of the process. Check your assumptions against reality to see whether the solutions you have developed will have the impact you hope for.

Read More On How To Test Your App

5 How to Deploy Your Mobile
Data Collection Software

Your app might be built and the first version tested, but before you can press "deploy," there are few final pieces to iron out. You need to know what devices your app will run on and the network they'll use to transmit data. Your workers need to know what they can use the devices for and how to refill their data when they run out. Cover off on these final preparations to make sure the mobile data collection app that you have worked so hard on actually works on a mobile device.

Choose the right device

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

Deciding between a feature phone and a smartphone, determining an operating system, and choosing the right internal memory and battery life are all key considerations for the device your application will run on.

Prepare your devices

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 and there are many pitfalls you can encounter.

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 mobile data collection app needs to be installed. And while projects with only a few users might not face much of an issue, for projects with hundreds (or thousands) of users, this process can take weeks. Budget both time and resources for device preparation accordingly.

Device setup isn't so bad on a small program. For national deployments, it's another story.

Find the right data plan

Without a doubt, you will want to make sure that the data plan you choose is with a provider who has good coverage in your the data plan you choose project area and will cover the data required to transmit the number of forms your users collect.

Determine which providers work best in your project area, examine their billing schemes (we recommend pre-paying, if possible), and determine how much data your application will need.

Develop 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, or which apps the user is 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.

Tips for Preparing for App Deployment

6 How to Train Your Team
in Mobile Data Collection

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 experience working with over 500 projects to help inform the answer.

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.

Choose the right method of training

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 methods that are helpful during trainings. Keep in mind your participants’ backgrounds while choosing which of these techniques is the best fit.

Your workers need to know how the app will help them do their job better. Explain to them how it will help them reach more beneficiaries or consult them faster. Show them results from the pilot or data from similar efforts and challenge them to beat it. You can’t expect your workers to just accept the challenges that might come with the new way of working -- you have to empower them.

Just like you know your workers’ level of digital literacy and objectives, you should know what type of learners they are: Visual, auditory, or tactile. Everyone learns in a different way, so tailor your training to your workers – and sometimes that means taking a hybrid approach.

Some workers learn best by getting their hands on the app and playing with it.

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.

Our field managers often use some of these tricks (and they’ve often found bringing some candy helps to sweeten the sessions). You should expect your approach to trainings to change the more you learn about your audience. Just like your app, this is an iterative process. For more advice on how to run your training sessions, check out these tips from our global services team.

Reinforce your training

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 we reinforce our training are:

Repetition

We conduct refresher trainings at regular intervals to cover both the things that our workers have forgotten and our new workers. It also provides a good opportunity to notify workers of new features or for workers to share advice and feedback.

Resources

We develop support mechanisms to guide workers as they use the application in real time. Whether it’s a one-pager, comprehensive user manual, or in-app training module, the idea is to provide your team with the tools they need to troubleshoot any issues on their own. For more advice on how to compile a training guide for your app, check out our guide.

Give yourself and your team the best shot at successfully launching your mobile data collection program by arming them with the tools and training they need. Tailor your approach to their needs, just like you did with the app, and they will be better for it.

Learn more about how to train your team

7 How to Sustain Your
Mobile Data Collection Program

Once you understand the structure of your app, it’s time to begin the building phase. This includes a clear understanding of how you will approach development, an outline of what functionality each version of the app will incorporate, and some key features of mobile data collection tools you’ll be sure to want to include.

Support system

The importance of a good support system to 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.

A user manual is a good place to start for troubleshooting, but make sure your users are aware of and encouraged to use all of the support channels available to them. As your program grows, you’ll need new resources like help desks or a central call center. And whatever the support channels you offer, make sure you track any and all of the issues raised. Delays in communication or repeated failure to resolve their problems will cause users to lose trust in the program.

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

A paper training manual can be a useful tool on programs trying out mobile data collection for the first time.

Supervisors

A clear view of the entire process, including both program and worker performance metrics, is crucial for your supervisors to keep the program running.

The metrics used to monitor worker performance should be designed as per the nature of the project and agreed upon between workers and supervisors prior to implementation. The right metrics will be easy to track and help incentivize users to improve their own performance.

With paper forms, most of their time would be spent on tracking down data and following up with users. Now that their program runs on a mobile device, this information should already be at their fingertips, allowing them to focus their efforts on supporting the workers who need the most help.

Incentives for app usage

If users are not given sufficient incentives 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. Some are related to the app’s benefit, like saving them time and effort on their day-to-day work. Some are outside of the app, like sending reminders, showing them their impact, or giving them tips on how to do even better.

How to Sustain Your Mobile Data Collection Program

If designed correctly, mobile data collection can improve the speed and accuracy of your program. The proper planning and setup can be tricky, though, which is why we pulled together this guide.

For more tips and examples, download our comprehensive guide to mobile data collection.

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