In early 2016, I wrote a short piece on the benefits of tablet technology supported data collection. The title for the Linkedin post ‘75kg of regret…’ was reflective of a number of pitfalls we experienced doing a paper-based data collection of over 1,300 surveys: large quantities of paper survey forms (75kg worth…), the significant time required for data entry and digitising survey forms, increased risk of human error from double handling of data, and the implications of these processes on project timeframes.
In that original post, I reflected that in future projects Sustineo would revise our approach to surveys and draw, where possible, on tablet technology for data collection. Since then, we have had the opportunity to undertake a number of surveys in the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea, with these experiences re-emphasising the benefits that can be reaped from the effective use of tablet technology.
This piece outlines a number of noticeable benefits from our experience with tablet-based data collection. Reflections on perceived risks of tablet-based data collection and our experience navigating them will be the subject of a future piece.
Benefits from our experience with tablet-based data collection
The following benefits were based on a recently completed project in the Solomon Islands. More details are provided on the project at the end of this post.
Ability to easily and quickly refine survey instrument up until commencement of data collection. The ability to make edits to the survey (in both English and Pijin) through the web-based platform meant that any issues or refinements identified during the testing and pilot could be addressed overnight, without the need to reprint surveys that incur additional cost and paper waste.
Increased logistical ease through reduced material weight in the field. Carrying sufficient tablets in the field – including spare tablets, batteries, charger packs and a water-proof pelican case – were far more manageable compared to the experience of lugging plastic containers of paper around.
Real time updates on survey progress in the field. Provided there was internet coverage, Sustineo and Akvo staff could provide a real-time review of the number of surveys collected, and the breakdown against quotas for different variables such as age and gender. Without internet coverage, the field team leaders could still access this information through a manual review of the tablets.
Significant time benefits. Reducing time spent in additional data entry meant that, upon completion of data collection and uploading of all surveys, we could move straight onto data cleaning, collation and coding rather than spend further weeks engaged in data entry.
Reduced risk of human error. No double handling of data reduced the additional risk of mistakes in the data entry process.
Quality assurance and control benefits. Data was collected on the conduct of the interviews themselves which could be used as an additional quality assurance step. All interviewers used, as far as possible, the same tablet each day, with their own profile. Information on the length of interview and the geo-location were recorded which meant that any possible issues (for example, an interviewer conducting a series of very short interviews in an identical location) could be controlled for and, if required, excluded. The real-time ability to review this information also meant that field supervisors could be notified of any potential issues for them to manage.
Data cleaning and quality. Once the data had been uploaded from the tablets, it was immediately available to download as an Excel document. This decreased the time that would be otherwise required to re-code data and ensure each label was consistent and in an appropriate form for use in certain data analysis programs. Responses entered under ‘Other’ and where interviewers had made comments still needed to be reviewed and categorised.
While there was still scope for improvement in the application of the tablet-based data collection platform – for example, we learnt some valuable lessons in terms of how open text ‘Other’ responses are coded in the back-end of the data management system – there were clear benefits from shifting to the pure use of tablets in field data collection.
This blog focused on a project Sustineo recently completed for the United Nations Development Programme in the Solomon Islands. The survey drew on over 2,300 survey respondents from 24 survey sites in seven provinces plus the capital of Honiara. Data was collected by two teams simultaneously using Samsung tablets with Akvo Flow as the data collection application. The fieldwork was completed over a five-week period (which, for those who are familiar with undertaking that scale of fieldwork in the fragmented archipelago of the Solomon Islands, is an impressively short period).
Details on this project, and others related to our survey and social research project portfolio, can be found here.
If you would like to discuss our experience or work in this space further, please don’t hesitate to get in contact with me at firstname.lastname@example.org.