Part seven in our series on getting starting with mobile data collection addresses the implementation stage of the process, including how to launch your application and train your team.
We’ll be straight with you: Actually launching your mobile data collection program is often the hardest part.
In fact, 70% of the World Bank’s information and communication technologies for development (ICT4D) projects have failed.
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 interacts with a particular mobile data collection app is likely different from how the community health worker will approach the solution.
You must prepare and train for all scenarios, because how each user understands the tool is inextricably linked to the program’s success.
The advice that follows is meant to help you transform the new tool you have created into a successful program, using the information you have about your audience and environment and the understanding that it is not the app that will solve all your problems: It is the people who use it who matter most.
We have successfully implemented projects ranging from pilots to 120k+ users. Based on this experience, we pulled together a few tips and tricks around implementing your program and training your team. We broke these tips into three categories:
- Testing Your Mobile Data Collection App
- Managing Your Devices
- Training Your Team
Testing Your Mobile Data Collection App
For many users, your 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 ensure 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, whether it’s brand new or you have only added one new feature. They should not go into the field working on a different app from the one they were trained on.
Look for opportunities to improve the efficiency of your workforce as they start out with the tool. For example, to make it easier for a community health worker, we will often preload data for all the beneficiaries whom they are actively tracking. During training, we hand over the phones and ask our workers to log in and sync with the server. Immediately after the sync, they see a list of active, familiar beneficiaries on their phone.
This serves two purposes:
- It proves them the importance of syncing with the server to keep data safe
- It gives them a list of beneficiaries to start following up with on the first day.
This introduction is meant to demonstrate to them the immediate value of the platform, making the adoption process smoother.
Managing Your Devices
Depending on your program size, device setup can take a considerable amount of time and resources.
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 their application for a specific device model, apps for larger scale programs may need to work for a wider range of devices. In one of our projects, which spans seven Indian States, with different states teams using different phone models based on their procurement process. In all, there are five different phone models used in the seven states to run the same application.
Within the first few state rollouts, we realized the importance of selecting the right device. We started facing application usage challenges due to poor quality devices. One device we had selected was quickly running out of battery, while another device 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 or 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. CommCare is supported only on Android devices, and we have tested it 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.
Make sure your devices are ready (and fully charged) ahead of your training session.
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 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.
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 app.
How soon your workers will become comfortable with your mobile data collection app 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 methods that are helpful during trainings. 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 we reinforce our training are:
For more advice on how to train your workers, we have pulled together seven helpful tips.
A supervisor in Myanmar takes his frontline workers through their mobile data collection app for the first time.
BONUS: Support Your Workers
We discuss this topic more in our next post (How to Sustain Your Mobile Data Collection Program), but it is so important, we wanted to introduce it here:
Once your team starts using the new tool, they will need ongoing support until they become comfortable. A good support system is vital.
In the first few months of our projects, our teams typically report two types of issues:
- A technical bug that was missed in the design & testing process, or
- What a user believes to be a technical bug, but is really just a gap in their understanding.
The latter issues happen more often, but fortunately, are also more easily addressed. There are a number of ways to overcome these issues, including:
- A brief explanation from a designated support person
- A refresher course with users experiencing the same issues
- In-depth user manuals
One other type of issue that does occasionally come up is related to hardware. As frustrating as it may be, the Android device failure rate last year was 25%, due to anything from third-party app crashes to speaker malfunction. For new mobile device users, such failures can drop application usage, affecting the collection of your data. To account for this, we recommend smaller projects budget for replacement devices accordingly, while larger programs should negotiate a support contract with the vendor when procuring their devices.
Why Does This Matter?
Considering the nature of development projects, deploying 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.
Keeping an eye on the data coming in can help you understand how successful you have been with this implementation. Pull data points like last form submission, last sync with server, and which version users are using to identify issues in the field. For example, seeing a worker’s last sync was 42 days ago helped us realize she had lost her phone, was worried about reporting it, and had switched back to paper forms.
You can use this data to improve your future implementations and trainings to ensure each cohort of users is better prepared than the last to help your program drive the impact it seeks.
Once you have implemented your mobile data collection solution and trained your team, the next step in our starter’s guide to mobile data collection is making sure your program is set up for long-term success: “How to Sustain Your Mobile Data Collection Program”