ICT4Ag – Mobile Data Collection – Africa Soil Information Service

On Friday, January 13, 2012, SIPA alum Eric Couper (MPA in Development Practice 2011) gave a talk at the MVP colloquium focused on his work in Arusha, Tanzania testing, deploying, and refining mobile data collection tools and processes. Mr. Couper is the ICT and Agriculture Coordinator for the Africa Soil Information Service, where he headed an ICT4Ag Pilot Survey. The results he shared at the colloquium highlight the possibilities, as well as the continuing challenges, of using mobile technology for data collection. We felt New Media Task Force members will find these results, and the hardware and software utilized by the team, interesting and useful!

For the survey, a research tool was needed that was cheap, robust, and easy to use. The program’s team chose touchscreen mobile devices running the Android operating system (phones and tablets). Such devices have excellent benefits for data collection:

*They’re cheap: No need for data entry staff (data can be uploaded from device to computer via hardline cable or wireless internet / 3G network); Shorter hiring period for enumerators; Open source platform; They replace many devices already in use in agricultural research (GPS units, cameras, navigation equipment)

*They’re fast: Touchscreen allows quickness (no paper surveys to flip through); No switching between devices (all-in-one device); No need to wait for data entry (data is instantly accessible); Autogenerated basic reports

*They provide quality data: Automatic skip logic; Most data entry is automatic; Can set response types and thresholds; Data quality can be checked daily

*They’re easily approachable: Android operating system is user-friendly and has open file architecture; Touch screen interface; Interchangeable keyboards (for instance, can use QWERTY or T9 as needed)

Mr. Couper’s team utilized a collection of software to gather data on these devices. The main piece of software the team relied on was Open Data Kit (ODK). This free, open source software provides the ability to build surveys, collect the data on mobile devices, and aggregate the data. For this project, ODK was mainly used for the collection portion. The team built the surveys in Excel, then uploaded them for use with ODK in XLS2XForm. The team also used Locus Free, a free navigation application (for GPS coordinates, mapping new roads, sharing data), and Distance & Area Measurement, a free… distance and area measurement application (for measuring the sizes of often-irregular fields), to gather data. These tools provided the team with great functionality at no cost. At the end of each day, data could be uploaded to the main computers (while still backed up on the mobile devices) via ODK Aggregate, but this system can be challenging, so to continue with the user-friendly theme of the project, the team began using the free and easy Formhub. This program is very useful for downloading and mapping data submissions. (1)

Lessons learned:

-The project averaged 11 surveys/day

-Training of enumerators took longer than a non-ICT data collection training (4 days as opposed to 2). While the initial learning curve was steep, the enumerators found the devices easy-to-use once they got the hang of it. For enumerators, the program used extension officers from the Ministry of Agriculture who were respected and well-known in the community.

-Enumerators preferred tablets to mobile phones because of the larger screen.

-No device damage (tablets kept in simple plastic cover, mobile phones unprotected)

-Devices had to be charged daily (charging availability a concern for future scaling of project)

-Team would like to see the multiple applications combined into one easy-to-use inclusive application

-Other desired improvements include data visualization on the devices, manuals, automatic quality control, and more accurate GPS capabilities

Overall, Mr. Couper found that mobile data collection devices make the most sense for projects where you need to gather lots of data over time, photos and/or GPS coordinates are needed, and information needs to be received in near-real time. For more information on Mr. Couper’s work, check out his blog at: http://africasoils.net/labs/mobile/ You can also follow his work on Twitter @_couper !

(1) NMTF plans to hold trainings this  semester on some of these applications, particularly ODK and Formhub, so watch for updates from us!