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Using mobile phones in data collection: Opportunities, issues and challenges

Michael Trucano's picture
there are lots to ways to collect data while mobileThe explosive growth in the availability of mobile phones in societies around the world – even in some of the poorest, most remote communities – is increasingly leading many groups to explore how these devices might be used effectively as part of large scale data collection efforts in many sectors, including education. Utilizing small, portable electronic computing devices to help collect data is not new, of course. For over two decades, laptop computers and personal digital assistants (PDAs) have featured in initiatives to (e.g.) collect census information, interview consumers of various goods and services and poll potential voters. That said, such efforts often faced constraints related to, among other things: costs; the relative novelty of such devices among key segments of the population; the need to provide device-specific user training; and difficulties in exchanging data between these devices and other components of a larger system for data collection. If, as it has been argued, the best technology is often the one you already have, know how to use, can maintain and can afford, for most of the world, the mobile phone fits these criteria quite well. As of late 2013, rates of mobile phone penetration stood at 96% globally (128% in developed countries and 89% in developing countries). According to the International Telecommunications Union, “today there are almost as many almost as many mobile-cellular subscriptions as there are people in the world.” 
 
Given their ubiquity, increasing functionalities, and decreasing related acquisition and operating costs, it is not surprising that mobile phones have been employed in a variety of ways to aid data collection efforts around the world. While many people may believe that such efforts require the use of a high-end (and expensive) smart phones, phones of all sorts have been deployed successful to different ends in different contexts.

Very simple, low-end ‘dumb phones’, for example, can utilize simple text messaging (or SMS) or voice to (e.g.) send out short queries by phone to a bank of phone numbers, prompting users to reply with a short response, which can be either predefined (‘text 1 for yes, 2 for no’)  or open-ended. Smartphones can be used in much more sophisticated ways by presenting rich media survey questions directly to respondents or to help guide the actions of an ‘enumerator’ (someone who administers a survey in person) by presenting a user-friendly interface to help an enumerator input and transmit data in structured ways. Such phones may also contain help files and training aids for the enumerators. In between the high and low end, ‘feature phones’ (a catch-all category of sorts for phones which can do more than make basic voice calls and send and received text messages, but do not have the advanced functionality of smart phones) can make use of simple graphical forms (e.g) on screen as prompts for questions, and can store/transmit structured data as a result of responses.

Data input or captured into phones may be transmitted or shared in many ways (including SMS, MMS, USSD, Bluetooth, wireless Internet, or the exchange of physical memory cards). Where mobile connectivity is not available, data can be stored on the phone and transmitted later once a phone is within sufficient range of a cell tower.
 
How and why might mobile phones
be useful in large-scale data collection efforts,
and what comparative advantages might their use have when compared to other options?
 
A number of attributes and characteristics of mobile phone use in such activities (as well as the use of other small, low-cost portable devices such as tablets, especially where such devices can be connected to mobile and wireless networks) may lead them to be considered, especially when compared with the use of more traditional, paper-based survey instruments:
 

Education After the Spring Meetings: The Way Forward as a Global Practice

Simon Thacker's picture

adult literacy program for young Moroccan women

It’s the first class of an adult literacy program for young Moroccan women. Ghita comes to the front of the class, picks up a piece of chalk and carefully draws a line on the blackboard. It is the letter alif, the first letter of the Arabic alphabet, one of the simplest to recognize and write: a single downward stroke.

The Digital Media Academy at the 7th World Urban Forum

Maya Brahmam's picture

It’s a sign of the times that we had the first digital media academy at the World Urban Forum this year. Digital media has come a long way and is here to stay. Its effects have been transformational in many areas of communications – print journalism, book publishing, and marketing & advertising. Now, learning is seeing itself transformed by the same technologies that offer reach, scale, and interactivity at a price tag that’s hard to beat.

I was invited to share my experience in promoting the WBG’s first Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) on climate change, as I had created the communications strategy and overseen its launch, which was heavy on social media and reach to the developing world. I was inspired by earlier campaigns and also by the TED organization’s single-minded approach to branding. See attached presentation for details.

Universities in Bangladesh Making Strides Towards Home-Grown Innovations

Shiro Nakata's picture

Professor Hasan and his assistant passionately illustrating contributions of their sub-project in the interview at BUET – Shiro Nakata
Thanks to our research program, we have been able to save the lives of at least 10 women by detecting their breast cancer at early stages,” enthusiastically says Dr. Md. Kamrul Hasan, a professor at Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering (DEEE), Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET), Dhaka.
 
Dr. Hasan is the manager of the cancer detection research project, which is one of the sub-projects awarded with research grants from the Academic Innovation Fund (AIF) program under the Higher Education Quality Enhancement Project (HEQEP). Faculty members and research students of the department joined together for the research project.
 
Lack of access to research grants and proper research environment has long been a major headache for researchers in developing countries like Bangladesh, especially in fields of science and technology. Bangladeshi scholars, who go abroad for their studies, often prefer to stay back in the host countries out of concern for availability of research facilities and financial resources indispensable for pursuing their academic work.

Healthily Growing in Bangladesh: Cash Transfers Encourage Health Checkups and School Attendance

Johannes Zutt's picture

The biggest daily struggle for 28 year old mother of two Sima Begum, is feeding her young children and keeping them healthy.  Nutrition is a key challenge not only for Sima, living in a slum in Narayanganj, but for women across Bangladesh and South Asia.  In fact, wasting and stunting are among the most stubborn health challenges facing the children of this region.

For the last 15 months, Sima has started receiving nutritional advice as well as a small cash transfer to help raise healthy children. Through a pilot cash-transfer program supported by the Rapid Social Response Multi-Donor Trust Fund (MDTF), her 10 year old son Faisal, is eligible for a Tk 800 ($10) school stipend and her daughter Shakal, 5, for a Tk 800 income transfer.  Sima uses the stipends to feed Shakal a healthier diet and to pay for Faisal’s tuition, school books and uniform.

In order to receive these stipends Sima has to ensure that Faisal goes to school and that Shakal is brought every month to the community center near her house at New Zimkhana, where her growth can be monitored. The growth monitoring is simple:
 

What Will it Take to End Poverty in Cities?

Abha Joshi-Ghani's picture

Postcards from the World Urban Forum in Medellin, Colombia

From April 5th to 11th, in Medellin, the World Urban Forum (WUF) brought together a diverse group of urban thinkers and doers to discuss the world’s most urgent urban challenges. With participants meeting under the theme of “Urban Equity in Development – Cities for Life,” the overall atmosphere was one of cautious optimism. On the one hand, participants were highly aware of the vast challenges facing cities and their inhabitants. Cities remain home to shocking levels of inequality and highly pernicious forms of social and economic exclusion. In that respect, hosting the Forum in Medellin helped drive the point home—as UN-Habitat Executive Director Jon Clos observed before the event, “We want a realistic world urban forum, we want a forum in a real city that has real issues.” On the other, attendees were buoyed by the conviction that today’s rapid urbanization represents an unprecedented demographic and economic opportunity. Medellin itself has made astounding progress in recent years, focusing on improving transport and mobility, inclusive governance, and education.

In a Rapidly Changing World, Governments Need to Make Education a Priority

Donna Barne's picture
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, left, and World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim, right, pose with education campaigners Shazia Ramzan and Kainat Riaz, who were caught up in the Pakistan gun attack on Malala Yousafzai and are in Washington to lobby for greater educational access. Photo: Roxana Bravo/World Bank

The world needs to step up efforts to educate large numbers of young people to meet the challenges of the 21st century. That was a key message at the Learning for All Symposium, Investing in a Brighter Future, at the IMF-World Bank Spring Meetings.

The event, moderated by PBS News Anchor Judy Woodruff and webcast in three languages, linked what several participants described as an ongoing “learning crisis” with high unemployment among young people worldwide.

While a lot of progress has been made getting children into school, 57 million are still out of school. Studies have found that education gaps are impeding skills development, economic growth, and competitiveness around the world. In 2011 it was estimated that 73 million young people were unemployed globally. Youth employment rates are two to four times as high as those of adults in most countries.

Report from Nigeria: Education Needs Intelligent Champions

Elizabeth King's picture


The hall was full all the way to the back and up to the balcony.  The audience was lively, contributing loud asides in their seats, applauding often, cracking inside jokes, and even occasionally arguing directly with those on stage.  You’d think I was at a political rally, but it was the 20th Nigerian Economic Summit in Abuja last month; the theme of the three-day summit was ”transforming education through partnerships for global competitiveness.”

Aspiring to Understand Aspirations

Scott Abrahams's picture

The following post is a part of a series that discusses 'mind and culture,' the theme of the World Bank’s upcoming World Development Report 2015.

In Ethiopia, 3% of students will go to college.* But how many would you guess say that they want to?

The answer is 75%. That is how many of the 14 to 15 year-olds surveyed by the Young Lives team out of Oxford said they would like to complete a university degree. Of those kids, 9 in 10 expect to get there.

Want to Join the Movement to End Poverty? Take It On!

Michelle Pabalan's picture



Remember when you were a kid and everyone asked: “What do you want to become when you grow up?” What did you answer? Have you fulfilled your dreams?

Most of us aspire to live our lives to the fullest; to develop our talents; to make a difference in the world.  Sometimes we may feel lost in the great scheme of things. But as the World Bank Group’s Jim Yong Kim points out: The most successful movements to change the world started with a small group of like-minded people. Think of the movements to find a treatment for AIDS, to promote human rights or to ensure gender equality.
 


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