What Is Your
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.
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 Choose the
Right Mobile Data
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 to Establish
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.
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.
How to Design & Test
Your Mobile Data
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:
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.
How to Implement
Your Program & Train
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.
How to Sustain Your
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:
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.