How to Choose the Right Mobile Data Collection Tool

July 24, 2018

Part four in our series on getting starting with mobile data collection shares the benefits of mobile over paper and the questions to ask that will help you find the right platform for your program.


Research has shown that mobile data collection tools can amplify the impact of M&E programs.

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.

As you identify what type of data collection tool works for you, this post will help you understand:

  • The benefits of mobile over paper-based solutions
  • Questions about the requirements of your program to inform the features you need
  • Key features to look for in a mobile data collection app you may not have considered


Frontline workers review data they used to collect with paper forms on their new mobile app.


Why Mobile Instead of Paper?


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


While paper might be the standard for collecting data at many organizations, there are significant issues associated with a paper-based data collection methods. 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.
  • Difficulties in supervision: Supervisors of paper-based programs spend significant time contacting and following up with frontline workers to check their status.

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

Such mobile tools can validate data upon entry to ensure higher accuracy. They can incorporate complex form features, such as skip logic, to help collect data more efficiently. Updates and programmatic changes can be deployed to the field without the need for printing and distributing new surveys. Frontline workers can reference counsel built into mobile tools to advise them through particularly challenging assessments as they speak with beneficiaries. Supervisors can securely access relevant data and do so instantly when the worker has a mobile connection.


[Mobile data collection] gave us the ability to control the experience of our field-based data collectors, which drastically reduced human error. With paper-based forms, you can’t really make your field staff follow a strict protocol.

– Bhawna Mangla, Senior Research Associate, Monitoring & Evaluation, Seghal Foundation


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 mobile data collection software 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 App?

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 method of data collection, 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 require certain features in order to capture them. Your data needs will determine whether you are collecting quantitative or qualitative data, but also whether you will be recording GPS coordinates, audio, video, or other formats that will require the appropriate features from your mobile data collection app.


Will you need to update your data?

Often, programs require that workers revisit data sources (beneficiaries, locations, etc.) to collect updated information.  If this is the case for your program, it is helpful to have a platform that allows you to link and review multiple data entries with a feature such as case management. For example, a worker tending to a tuberculosis patient using a paper-based data collection tool might have to carry around several forms to have the full context of that patient’s medical history. Instead, the mobile case management feature provides that same worker with easy access to the patient’s medical history and can even help pre-populate forms with previously collected data, such as name, date of birth, and treatment history.


Who has access to your data?

Just as important as the way data is collected is the person (or people) collecting and managing it. Unlike paper-based systems, which do not allow multiple actors to update or review data, some mobile data collection tools allow for multiple relevant and predefined users to view and update data from a single source. Various parties may need to act on or review the most up-to-date information to fulfill their responsibilities, so a feature like case sharing–which allows for efficient and secure data sharing–can be exactly what your program needs.


How do you need to share your data?

One of the biggest questions around data collection, in general, is what you will do with all of the data you collect. Are you going to export your data to a dedicated analytics platform? Or do you need an easily accessible dashboard for multiple stakeholders to review your data in real time? These types of considerations help determine whether you need a simple export to Excel, more complex data visualization features, or even full platform integrations with specialized reporting software, such as Tableau or Spotfire.


And as always with the sharing of data, consider any privacy and security needs associated with patient information. Many tools offer various levels of security, so be sure to check whether your chosen platform will be compliant with all relevant data privacy regulations.

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 tool for your team.


Find a tool that can ask your questions in a way your beneficiaries are sure to understand.


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

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?

The number of end users in your program is one of the most important considerations for which mobile data collection tool you use. Not all platforms are built for scale. If you need to scale your program, ask the technology vendor if they have projects at scale. This will give you a sense of whether scaling a project nationally is possible with their product. Our recommendation is to invest in a tool that can grow with your program so you are prepared at any stage.

You should also be aware that 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.


How experienced is your team with mobile data collection?

Some mobile data collection software offers simple premade surveys. Others are built to support extremely complex workflows but require a high level of technical competence. Does your platform require custom development by an engineer in order to fit your needs or are all required features available in a self-service mode? Does it require any coding experience? Do you have an individual on staff who knows how to build and maintain an application on the platform you have selected? If not, does the platform offer training opportunities or have clear and easy-to-understand documentation on how it can be used? Be aware that even the best platforms require extra effort and experience in order to extract their full value.

Indeed, in some cases, organizations have a team they entrust with building a custom solution, often built upon an open source platform. This can mean that the platform is built to precisely the needs of the program. However, as the complexity of the platform grows, so too does the complexity of setup and maintenance. At Dimagi, for instance, we have a team of about 15 developers working full time on the platform, including 2-3 engineers fully dedicated to keeping our production environments online, up-to-date, and bug-free.


Will you have an internet connection while in the field?

Once you understand the factors in your control, it is time to consider the context of where you will be deploying your program–including what is out of your control. If you are deploying in a low or no connectivity environment, look for a system that includes offline functionality. Many platforms will allow you to record data on the device and upload when connectivity returns. Some even allow for offline case management, which means you can store data from prior visits on the device to access and update even without an internet connection.


What languages do your end users and beneficiaries speak?

Sometimes your team and beneficiaries speak a range of languages. If this is the case for your program, you should look for a tool that allows you to easily translate a given form. Some tools go even further, allowing a user to select a language for their application depending on their audience. If the beneficiaries cannot read, some tools also allow for audio playback of the text on the screen.


Why does this matter?

Mobile data collection applications 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.


Once you know what data you need to collect and which tool you are going to use, the next step in our starter’s guide to mobile data collection is understanding how you will collect your data in a clean, consistent way: “How to Establish Data Collection Standards”


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