UNHCR has been investigating collecting data using smartphone technology for many areas of its operations such as site assessments and refugee profiling. In 2010 it carried out a pilot to assess the advantages and disadvantages – including feasibility, cost, time and human resources – of using mobile phones compared to existing paper-based data collection for a mosquito net coverage survey in Dadaab in Kenya.
The available applications (‘apps’) for Android phones1 allow the collection of a variety of data types: audio, GPS, image, video and barcode. Uploading and saving the data records were done easily and the data collected were validated and saved in a convertible format that could be analysed in standard statistical software – epiinfo, STATA, SPSS. The phone offered additional features for validation of data that are not found in paper surveys:
- The surveys recorded the time of data entry.
- Households visited were tagged with GPS coordinates.
- Photos of mosquito nets showed that a net was actually present.
The time to complete the data collection was significantly reduced using the phones and the phone technology eliminated the additional days required for data entry, data cleaning and shipment of data sets.
With a faster implementation of the survey and the elimination of data entry, the phone method is less reliant on human resources, though a direct comparison of the quality of the data by comparing paper and mobile technology at the same household would be worth making.
The cost comparison – not including the costs involved in or preparation – was not unfavourable. Start up costs for surveys were US$3,578 for paper and US$1,363 plus US$3,928 for purchase of the phones for Android. Assuming that all items for the paper based survey would need to be procured again for a second round but not the phones, this would show an overall combined cost savings in two rounds of surveys of US$501 for the Android phones over paper surveys. For every subsequent survey the cost savings for smartphone use would increase, although their lifespan is assumed to be approximately 18 months of field use before they require replacement. It is also important to consider and budget for spare parts and repairs.
There was overwhelming support for the use of the mobile phones in Dadaab, from both the interviewers and the UNHCR staff, for providing timely data to make decisions with. Besides the other advantages, interviewers found the use of phones less cumbersome than paper surveys and less prone to losing data, and the format helped them to follow the questions in order.
Sarah Hoibak (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a consultant on Malaria Control Programmes with UNHCR. Marian Schilperoord (email@example.com) is Senior Public Health Officer with the Public Health and HIV Section in UNHCR.
1 An open source mobile smartphone technology.