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.
The device you run your app on can make a big difference to your program’s success
Choosing the right device
Your app should not only function on its device – it should thrive.
Problems like slowness and app crashes should be addressed during design and testing. However, apps for larger scale programs may need to work for a wide range of devices, so catching all of these bugs can be hard. In one of our projects, which spans seven Indian states, different states teams use different phone models based on their procurement process.
Within the first few state rollouts, we realized the importance of selecting the right device: Some devices quickly ran out of batter, while others slowed performance after only a few months of use. To maintain a basic standard, we developed a list of 42 requirements that each device needed to fulfill for that project – a process we now recommend for most projects that plan to scale beyond their initial launch.
A few basic things to keep in mind while creating such a list for a project:
- Depending on the nature of data that is collected, decide between a feature phone and a smartphone. With the reduction in smartphone prices, most of our partners select smartphones, but here is a preliminary guide to help with this decision.
- In smartphones, it is important to know which operating system will support your data collection tool. For instance, CommCare is supported only on Android, which we have across a range of 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.
- Internal memory and battery life are also important to keep in mind while choosing a device. We put together a checklist to help our partners make the right decision while deciding on a device.
The time necessary for device and application setup grows exponentially with your program
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.
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. Therefore, it is important to budget both time and resources for device preparation accordingly. 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.
Check network availability before deploying your app to avoid this face on your frontline workers
Choosing 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 project area and will cover the data required to transmit the number of forms your users collect.
Which providers work in your project area?
There are two quick ways to find out which network providers you should explore: The best way is to check with the end users or mobile shopkeepers who live and work in the area. If that’s not an option, check a platform like OpenSignal that can show you different service providers’ coverage maps.
What are the providers’ billing schemes?
We’ve found the best option to be providers who bill by kilobyte of data rather than by time. Just make sure their rates are competitive and you know how much data each new SIM is pre-loaded with. Also, compare their pre-paid and post-paid plans. Pre-paid plans might offer a discount, but post-paid plans will help make sure your team does not run out of data in the field.
How much data do my forms use?
A good rule of thumb for a single form is around 7-10kb. However, depending on the platform, you can access more reliable estimates. In CommCare, go to “Submit History” > “View Form” > “Raw XML” and save in a text editor. Check the file size to see how large a form is. Then, after a quick calculation (Form Size X # of Forms/Worker/Month), you have a final estimate of the data required to submit your forms.
What else might you use data for?
The focus of your data plan is usually on form submissions, but you will also need data in order to cover other things like updates to your app, pulling down case data, multimedia capture, and other background services on the phone. At the end of the day, many CommCare projects comfortably use monthly data plans of 100 MB or less.
Once you have a provider and plan that works for you, there are a few things worth asking for that might make life a bit easier for your team. For instance, see if you can procure a set of SIM cards in a series. Or, ask if the provider offers an option for closed-user groups, so you can set up free calling (and/or SMS) between the users and staff of your program. There are no guarantees that these options will be available, but the least you can do is ask!
Make sure you’re clear with your frontline worker on what they can and can’t use their devices for
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.