Surveying with Mobile Phones – Is paper where data goes to die?

Conducting an mWater survey

Conducting an mWater survey

An important component of our survey work in Lagos was the use of the mobile phone app mWater. The app’s mission is to “use data to eradicate waterborne disease and other threats to survival and well-being.” To achieve this mission mWater has created online survey and mapping platform because they believe “paper is where data goes to die.”

mWater’s technology has been used by groups like the World Bank and USAID, and has resulted in an impressive amount of crowd sourced data. We were excited about this technology not only because it eliminates the time-consuming process of inputting paper surveys, but it also creates a mechanism for sustained collection of data over time. The mWater app can be downloaded onto anyone’s phone and once the survey is complete it can be immediately uploaded to the Internet. This presents the opportunity for ongoing data collection by community members.

One goal during our time in Lagos was to investigate the feasibility of using mWater in the survey communities — Oto Awori and Itire Ikate. Our complete findings will be published in a formal report later this year, but some initial reflections on the issues that arose around technology and community engagement are included here.

Technology

There is no doubt that inputting responses directly into the platform was a huge benefit of using the mWater app. Immediately after completing the surveys we were able to download the data and begin analysis. The challenges with using mWater were instead felt on the front end – during the survey collection process in the field. Some of the challenges included:

Syncing phones before going to survey

Syncing phones before going to survey

  • Internet Connections: While you don’t need an Internet connection to complete the mWater survey, you do need it to sync any updates to the survey questions or to download the app onto a new phone. In our two survey communities – Oto Awori and Itire Ikate the Internet (4G and Wifi) connections were often limited, which required significant planning before we arrived to make sure all devices were synced. Many of the community residents helping with the survey also used their own data plans to download the app and sync the surveys. Future surveying efforts should factor in these costs and determine a mechanism for reimbursement.
  • Screen Visibility: Many of the surveys were conducted outside and as a result it was very hot and bright. This often created problems when trying to read the survey questions or click the correct button on the screen. This may have been resolved with higher quality phones, however, we were using the brands and models of phones that would be available in the community. Using widely available phones is an important component if future surveys are to be implementation directly by residents. Something that mWater may consider in future versions of their app is to provide more tools for formatting the surveys. For example being able to change font size and bold certain text may help to address these visibility issues on lower quality phones.
  • Survey Access: With the current mWater settings it is difficult to make the survey publicly available without the surveyor going through several steps within the mWater app. If the survey is difficult to find and download the likelihood of the survey work being sustained is much lower. In order to really grow our initial work in Lagos we would need to work with mWater in developing a way to make access very simple (e.g. a direct url link or a standalone app) that would allow for simple, streamlined access.

Community engagement

Training community volunteers

Training community volunteers

In each community the local officials recruited young adults from the area to help us with the surveys for a small stipend. As we went around with them to implement the survey the value of engaging young community members was clear. They were not only able to quickly master the technology, but were able to navigate community dynamics that a visitor would never be able to do. The challenge with this model of community engagement – as is so often the case – is how to maintain and scale that participation.

Key to this challenge in maintaining and scaling community participation is the issue of sustained resources. Especially during the initial stages of expanding the survey work, small stipends for the youth volunteers and resources to conduct the trainings and provide administrative support would be critical. There are still a lot of hurdles to overcome before this could be a truly ‘crowd sourced’ project. Until then we would need dedicated people on the ground who have the capacity to problem solve issues with technology and implementation and to engage new people in the project.

A great tool, but not a ‘silver bullet’

In the end we found the benefits of using the app outweighed the technology and community engagement challenges. But it is also important to remember that mobile technology is not a ‘silver bullet.’ Future survey efforts have a lot of issues to address before this is truly a scalable and sustainable option for data collection and advocacy. It will take groups around the world working together online AND offline to develop mWater as a tool that doesn’t allow data to die, but instead puts information in the hands of people who want to improve the conditions in their own communities.

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