3 Feb 2010

Mobile phones as a survey tool

We're in the middle of a questionnaire survey at the moment, asking 1000 residents of Njombe, Ludewa and Makete about their attitudes towards local government. I'll write more about the survey theme once we get some preliminary findings, but for the moment, let me explain our use of mobile phones as a survey tool - which makes this survey unusual, innovative and possible even unique in Tanzania.

We're using mobile phones simply as a way of combining data collection, data cleaning and data entry all into one process. This shortens the time taken between collecting data and producing results. Each member of our survey team has one copy of a printed questionnaire and a mobile phone. They read the question off the printed sheet and input the response straight into the phone, using some free software called episurveyor. The entered data can then either be sent directly to a server from the phone or saved to a memory card and extracted later.

Overall, our estimate is that we will save 20 person days by not having to carefully enter and check data from 1000 paper questionnaires into a spreadsheet. This pretty much covers the cost of purchasing the phones and getting everything set up. And of course we will be able to use the phones again.

We have faced a couple of challenges though, which are worth highlighting. In particular, the software hasn't worked perfectly. Sending data to the surver is temperamental, so we've had to resort to saving completed forms to a memory card, which has added a little to the cost and will make collecting all the data together from each phone a little more time consuming. But neither of these are fatal problems, and we'll still make an overall saving on time and money. And we've learnt a couple of lessons in the process that will make it easier next time. First, check all the phones are working properly and resolve any problems before going out to the field. And second, have a backup plan ready and tested as well.

But despite these (minor) issues, our initial assessment is a wholehearted recommendation for anyone thinking of copying the approach. Give it a try.