The Best Mobile Data Collection System Exists: Choice is the Challenge

You might think that the topic of collecting data via mobile devices would be a rather dry discussion of data management and statistical methodology. You would be very, very wrong. The Technology Salon all but came to blows as we wrestled with privacy issues, total costs of ownership, and other elephants in the room.

When you combine some of the brightest mobile-for-development minds from projects stretching from agriculture to health to democracy, all of whom are facing increasingly common problems, perhaps that’s to be expected. Stories were shared around the basic challenges of data collection, picking the system to use, and the complications of different sectors.

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gather-dataThe right tool exists

Excitingly, the core problem is no longer having the right tools for the job – from SMS to feature and smartphone apps to tablets, there is a wealth of tools for organizations to gather information in the field. The first problem we uncovered was actually better tools to support deciding which tools were sufficient for the task at hand, and which tools among those were best. Some organizations had done deep dives into research, others had asked their networks.

There is at least one good collection of tools, put together into an Online Selection Assistant. Sadly, the project appears to no longer be funded and is not up to date with who has which features. It remains a solid starting point and sparked some interest from the Salon attendees in contributing to keep up-to-date.

What is the “best” tool?

What actually is “best” itself deserves unpacking. There will likely be some requirements and constraints of the project and the environment (Is there a reliable data network, or must you use USSD or SMS messaging? Is the carrier willing to help?). These criteria must not only be checkboxes and claims, but a desire emerged around some level of actual third party grading of their functionality, a la Consumer Reports for mobile data collection systems.

Naturally, the technology itself can meet all of these criteria, but the final decision must be made around whether or not it meets the needs of the users who will be enumerating data with the device.

Now about that data…

The flip-side of this is of course, what data are we gathering? Donor types always seem a bit surprised when merging existing data sets from different studies is difficult or downright impossible, and implementers seem to desire a better ability to standardize their own data, but the coordination is lacking – each program will want to measure a specific angle, and wedging that in to a broader data context is, at best, overhead.

Deeper into the rabbit hole is, of course, security. Much of the data being gathered has privacy concerns, from health status to putting lives at risk around election monitoring. Yet, the underlying technologies are essentially unsecured, particularly if a carrier can be forced to reveal data by the government; and few data gathering apps for smartphones take security seriously enough, given the potential consequences for those involved.

As with other cross-organization standards like IATI, the coordination to build in data, functionality, and security standards are not insurmountable – but there does have to be a lot of will behind making it happen from all sides. Judging by the raucous nature of the room, I’d say we’re close

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