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Moving with the changing landscape of field data collection – benefiting from a transition to tablets


While paper-based surveys have been the staple of researchers and practitioners in the field for many years, there has been a recent shift to mobile phone and tablet based data collection tools. Reflecting this, Sustineo has built a capability in the use of tablet-based data collection with Akvo FLOW. Here we share our recent experience in conducting a survey in the Solomon Islands.

Sustineo recently completed a survey for the United Nations Development Programme and the Solomon Islands Electoral Commission exploring various aspects of voter knowledge, attitudes, and practices. This project has highlighted the benefits of taking full advantage of tablet based data collection tools, and that many of the arguments against using them in the field are not well-founded.

Although the project scope and timeframe was ambitious, the survey was a resounding success. The Sustineo team surveyed over 1,300 people in 14 different villages across five provinces, completing all data collection targets within the planned 4-week period. The field locations were randomly allocated by the National Statistics Office and included some extremely remote locations with challenging terrain (some locations where literally not on the map).

Sustineo decided not to use the tablet computers for data collection after consulting with other researchers – the reasons ranged from cultural appropriateness to enumerators not being comfortable using the tablets, and the lack of power to recharge tablets in remote locations. Instead, paper surveys were used for data collection,, and tablet computers were used for data entry. This involved the additional step of checking coding and responses from the enumerator teams.

From this experience, there are definitely some lessons learnt for future fieldwork! Most, if not all, the risks conveyed to us beforehand could have easily been mitigated allowing the team to use the much more efficient tablet computers for data collection, and removing the additional step of data entry and checking. A few observations on the benefits of using tablet computers for data collection:

  • Time efficiency – the use of tablet computers would have saved a significant amount of time by cutting out the data entry phase of the project
  • Costs – the sourcing of paper and printing was an expensive endeavour. The cumulative weight of completed surveys was over 75kg.
  • Practicalities in the field – the use of tablets would have reduced the amount of physical documents enumerators needed to carry into the field.

From discussions with people in the Solomon Islands, ranging from villagers to our local enumerators and project partners, it was clear that the risks in using the tablets outlined to us beforehand were, in fact, negligible. Concerns about the cultural appropriateness of tablets anecdotally appear unfounded. Similarly, the contention that local enumerators would not be capable or comfortable with the use of tablets was misleading – the majority of the team had smart phones and data processing officers were able to navigate the during data entry without any problem. Concerns about losing power or access to the tablets in the field are also minimal – while some remote locations did not have power, the use of rechargeable battery packs can easily address this. Likewise, the risk of data loss through damage to tablets seems to be overstated – during a 3 hour trip by outboard motor in the rain, I felt a lot safer about the electronics in the dry-bag than the big box of paper surveys! In future we will transport the equipment in suitable rugged hard cases.

While in certain contexts, it is possible that paper surveys may be more appropriate, it is clear from our recent experience that there is definite value in making the most of the shift to the tablet-based survey technology in international development projects.

For more information, email us at, or see our previous blog post on the importance of grassroots data for community development projects.