Mobile Data Collection: How to Get Started

June 19, 2018

Mobile data collection is a method of compiling qualitative and quantitative inputs via a mobile device (e.g. mobile phone, tablet, etc.). Collecting data digitally has been proven to increase the speed and accuracy of data collection, and even increase 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. That means to follow the whole process of understanding your program objectives, defining your data needs, and identifying and implementing a data collection solution that works for you.

There are eight important areas to cover to ensure your mobile data collection program is as successful as possible:

  1. 1. What are your project objectives?
  2. 2. What is your current data collection process?
  3. 3. What are your data requirements?
  4. 4. How to choose a data collection tool
  5. 5. How to establish data collection standards
  6. 6. How to design and test your mobile data collection solution
  7. 7. How to implement your data collection program and train your team
  8. 8. How to sustain your mobile data collection program


Terre des hommes’ IeDA project works to improve child healthcare delivery with a customized mobile app. Image courtesy of Terre des hommes.


1. What are your project objectives?

Possibly the most important question for you to answer at the start of the process is: What are you trying to accomplish? What objective is your data collection program meant to achieve?

Understanding the objectives of your data collection program is about defining the role your data is meant to serve, whether it is to help answer a research question, analyze service delivery performance, or fulfill any number of other objectives.

There are also questions around whether you have any data-related obligations to anyone. Do you need to reach certain benchmarks to receive your next round of funding? Does the government require certain information be tracked? What are your program superiors seeking to understand?

Understanding your foundational objectives is paramount to ensuring a successful program, let alone determining the efficiency of your mobile data collection process. Those objectives should be the core of your entire program. They should be clearly defined and written down so that anyone in your organization can find them.


2. What is your current data collection process?

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.

Draw a chart of the current information flow of your data collection program. This is a basic data flow of a CommCare-based project.


There are plenty of overarching questions to ask here. For instance:

  • Who collects the data?
  • From whom are they collecting that data?
  • What are they collecting that data with?
  • Where does it go once they have collected it?
  • Who needs to see the compiled data and in what form?


From there, you can start to answer questions such as:

  • Where are the inaccuracies in your data coming from?
  • How secure is your data?
  • How long does each step of the process take?

Having a holistic understanding of your existing data collection process is an important step before you can answer the question of how a mobile solution might improve that process. Indeed, it can be hard to get a project moving in the right direction, but once you have a clear destination, it is easier to determine whether the next turn will take you closer to or further from where you want to be.


3. What are your data requirements?

Based on both the program objectives and the nature of your current data collection methods, defining your data needs is the next step. This means starting by creating a data dictionary that defines the types of data you need to collect. For instance, are you tracking program performance or worker performance? Something else?

Next, keep track of what you need to know: Is the data you need to collect qualitative or quantitative? Do you need to track the data once or over time? What are the environmental factors associated with your data source (e.g. language, network connectivity, etc.)?

Clearly defining each variable—including what metric you use to define it, whether it will be updated, and how you currently track it—leads directly into the next step: finding the right way to collect it.


4. How to choose a data collection tool

Once you have defined your program objectives, outlined your existing information flow, and decided what data you need to track, it is time to determine what medium of data collection is right for you.

(Spoiler alert: It won’t always be mobile.)

Deciding on a data collection tool entails understanding the strengths and functionality of each medium (paper forms, mobile technology, etc.), as well as calculating budgetary needs, implementation timelines, and the internal approval process. Wouldn’t it be nice if someone had helpful guides available for each of these things?


5. How to establish data collection standards

If mobile data collection is the right path for your program and you have selected the right platform, you will next need to establish protocols and standards. Your mobile data collection standards will summarize what variables to measure, who will collect them, who will have access to that data, if/how those variables will need to be updated, etc.

At this stage, it is also important to understand common standards for data collection and management (e.g. GDPR, HL7, etc.) and how to implement these standards in your program.

Finally, there are questions to be answered around proper data collection, in general, which will ensure unbiased results, including sample selection and how to phrase your questions. 

6. How to design and test your mobile data collection solution

Designing and testing your mobile data collection tool includes creating an outline, designing the forms, testing your prototypes, and adapting to feedback. This is where you get to dive into what buttons to create, implement display conditions, and determine how much data to store with offline data collection apps.

There are many considerations for the actual design of your mobile data collection app. However, if you followed the steps above by identifying your data needs, defining each variable, and establishing your data collection protocols, this part will be easier. You will already have answers to important questions that will define some of your design decisions, such as where people are collecting data, what language should the questions be in, etc. Keep in mind that the point of collecting all this information is to make sure you are working with the audience who will be using whatever app you design. We call this “designing under the mango tree.”

Once your prototype app is ready, it is time for testing. Get your app in the hands of the people who will use it and see how they respond. This testing group should be as diverse as possible, covering the spectrum of possible users your app might have–literate or illiterate, expert to novice, frontline workers and supervisors, alike. There are also many forms this test could take – whether you use paper printouts or a demo app on a mobile phone. Your job is to take their feedback and apply the right updates to your app before rolling it out for wider use.

7. How to implement your data collection program and train your team

When your app is finalized, it is time roll it out to the rest of your organization. This includes deciding on the right mobile device to use, training your workforce, and setting your platform up with any third-party integrations you might need. 

Training your team requires you understand what and how they need to learn. Are they literate? Have they used a mobile device before? Will they have technical support after the training? There are many different ways to train your frontline workers, so try to find the best version for your program.

You will also want to connect your platform with any third-party integrations you need so that you are ready to keep track of everything and maintain its security once the data starts coming in.

Image courtesy of the University of Melbourne

8. How to sustain your mobile data collection program

Congratulations! Your mobile data collection program is up-and-running! Data is flowing in! Your workers are happy! It’s time to pack up and go home, right?

Not quite.

Sustaining a mobile data collection program is just as important as its initial rollout. For example, you want to ensure your workers are still collecting the same amount of data (if not more) in the last six-months of using the tool, as they were in the first.

Furthermore, your solution will need ongoing maintenance, even if you choose an out-of-the-box mobile data collection platform. This is an important consideration that will require that you have someone technical on your team to support the program to ensure its success in the long run. Have a troubleshooting plan and team in place to tackle the typical issues that might arise after an organization-wide implementation, including problems with both hardware and software. Do users know how to manage their data plans and replenish them if they run out? Who should frontline workers contact if they’re having issues in the field?


If you’re successful, a well-implemented mobile data collection solution should increase the efficiency of your workforce and the accuracy and speed of your data collection efforts. It is easier to both supervise and scale a mobile data collection program than its paper-based counterpart, and potential for program improvements from the information you collect is more impressive and immediate. With CommCare, we’re trying to make this process easier for everyone who needs it, and hopefully these eight steps will help you figure out the right solution for your team.

If you have any questions or advice of your own that you would like to share, please email us at [email protected] or reach out on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn. We would love to hear from you about your efforts to implement a successful mobile data collection program!


Over the next few weeks and months, we’ll go in depth on each of these areas to make sure you have everything you need to set up your new mobile data collection system.

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