Mobile phones as a frontier data collection tool

Mobile phones as a frontier data collection tool

Mobile has marked presence even in the remotest and poorest of the areas. With the immense features available in smart phones, mobility has disrupted several industries such as watch, music, camera, media etc. With growing reliance on data driven approaches in governance, policy framing and decision making, government and other eminent international bodies are increasingly dependent on right data collection. For several decades, paper, digital solutions such as recorders, computers and PDAs have been used in data collection. However nearly all of them required sufficient ground training, tracing a learning curve and have an extensive upfront cost in terms of reach and affordability. Mobile phones address these challenges very well. Almost everyone understands how to operate a mobile or can easily learn. The fact that there is 96% penetration of mobile phones, and that there are as many subscriptions as people on this planet is a proof of its reach and affordability.

“Technology is not a panacea for all data collection approaches. Some methods work, and some don’t. The choice of technology may vary, however a larger understanding has been that mobiles are powerful and primary tool in data collection imperatives”

Many believe, that large sophisticated application for true benefit require smart phones and elaborate telecommunication infrastructure. For general data collection, however the simple text based dumb phone may also be used. Data may be recorded in the phone, communication may be carried out through SMS and MMS. In case telecommunication infrastructure or towers are not available in nearby area, recorded data may be saved in phone, and sent on availability of signal or transmitted over memory sticks.


Mobile data collection has following advantages over traditional data collection process on paper –

  • Speed – Mobile enables almost instantaneous transmission of structured data to central servers.
  • Accuracy – Digital capture of data ensures lesser possibility of data loss, better storage and access.
  • Training, power consumption and ubiquity – Capturing data on mobile requires much less power usage than laptops. The handheld device is easier to learn and can be easily carried to remote areas for data collection.
  • Evidence collection – In addition to textual data, mobile can also be used to capture pictures and voice recordings.

Key considerations when choosing mobile as mode of data collection

  1. No technology is apt for meeting all scenarios. Therefore it is imperative to understand the scope and cases that are required to be addressed. For example a smart phone may not be an apt choice for limited text only data collection in remote village survey. Once the context is fully known, technology based decisions can be made accordingly to meet ground expectations.
  2. While users are used to operating mobile phones, in some cases some training may still be required. It is therefore imperative to make applications based on user centered design principles. It would help to reduce training needs for field users.
  3. App development and design/ implementation of necessary infrastructure to support data collection along with required human capital is not cheap. It is therefore important to assess budgeting and sponsorship requirements beforehand.
  4. Data Security –  The data gathered for research is often sensitive, and needs to protected from misuse as per the law of land. It is therefore important for the implementing agency to meet the requisite security guidelines. This may include encryption of data at rest and in motion. Implementation of necessary measures for physical and cyber security policies such as firewall policies, anti viruses, CCTV etc. Mandating security audit shall be an assurance measure for data security.
  5. Technology refresh – As per industry guidance, technology often changes every 5 years. Thus a technology refresh helps agencies prepare for technology challenges and ensure effectiveness. It is therefore imperative to be cautious when investing in non-proven technology or getting into vendor lock-in kind of situation.

Challenges in data collection in fragile states or critical situations

Survey design is altogether a different challenge and is often aggravated in seriously uncommon or fragile state situations. Some of the challenges may be –

 

1. People may be anti-state and may turn hostile on enumerators.

2. In case of pandemic situation, it may not be safe for enumerators

3. Exposure to violence

 

In such a case, high frequency mobile surveys may help. Group of short questions are prepared and data is collected through automated calls to selected sample households. Obviously, necessary technical features have to be built to take care of situation where respondents choose to ignore or give inappropriate response.

 

Another approach could be sending a set of questionnaires to collect data though a series of automated SMS. Again, certain degree of intelligence would need to be built in to handle illegible or inappropriate responses.

 

 

The Future

  • Amalgamation of big data and mobile technology: Smart phones, IoT enables real time voluminous data collection. The data thus collected may have varying formats such as video, audio, numbers, free-flowing text etc. All this data when relayed to centralized processing system may be analyzed to produce deep, personalized and actionable insights.
  • With the proliferation of different kinds of system possibly using different technology, there is an immense possibility to combine outcomes. For example medical history records and eating habits may be combined to produce inputs for a dietary recommendation in real time. Therefore mobile data collection should be enabled for integration in different systems. 
 

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