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Phoning it in: Using mobile phones to collect data

Michael Trucano's picture

image courtesy of kiwanja.netGoing forward, isn't it more likely that the ICT tool of choice for students in developing countries will be the mobile phone, and not the computer?  This is a question of hot debate in many circles. Whatever the eventual resulution of this debate (and no doubt it will not yield a simple either/or answer), there are still precious few widespread examples of the use of phones for education purposes in classrooms in developing countries.  It's inevitable that various forms of low cost handheld computing and communication devices for students  (and perhaps one of these will be something still called a 'phone') will proliferate in schools in developing countries in the coming decade.  But perhaps the mobile phone's impact in the education sector will be more widely, and quickly, felt in another way?

There has been a lot of progress in the last year in using mobile phones for data collection activities in developing countries.  USAID and UNICEF have sponsored useful pilot initiatives to explore data collection using mobile phones as part of survey work in a number of sectors (e.g. famine relief).   Nokia  released its free LifeTools last November to help with data collection efforts in India related to agriculture.  The list is growing.

Until recently, you usually needed a relatively high-end phone, some programming experience -- and often Internet access and a fair amount of money! -- to make this possible.  The recent release of the new version of the popular free, open source FrontlineSMS tool, which is specifically designed for use by small NGOs, lowers the bar for the use of such tools in resource-challenged developing country environments.  The new version notably supports many new scripts and allows users in the field to download forms directly to their mobile using SMS.  The creator of FrontlineSMS, Ken Banks, will be speaking at IREX in DC next week.

Phone versus laptop?  It may be a false debate, but occasionally it throws off illumination along with the heat.  

(Image at the top of this blog post courtesy of


Another useful and free software to collect data is "Handylearn Counter". It lets you count the number of key presses. It is simple and easy to understand. The hardware requirements are low, it is only 40kb big, and it works with a wide range of phone vendors. Nevertheless it has live-updating graphics, it can be customized and has advanced features like signals or upload of results. More information about the software is here Regards Karsten Meier

Submitted by Martha on
I too agree with your post. Collecting data's through mobile phone is more deeply seen in developing countries rather than developed countries. There are lot of free tools available nowadays which helps us to collect data easily.

Submitted by Francis (Peter)... on
Is there any documentation on the use of mobile phones for the professional development of primary school teachers and the strengthening of primary school literacy skills in any of the circum-polar cuntries/regions? Yakutia (Russian Federation) is interested in the technology for the polar communities and is looking for anything that may exist that documents challenges that are analogous to those they face and how they were overcome. With thanks in advance Peter Higginson

Submitted by Ayesha Shahid on

Hi, I am currently doing research on free opensource software platforms that will allow collection of data and large scale surveys through text or sms (I mean no use of apps on androids or need of internet to download the form from an internet link). I want to be able to send my survey from text to all sorts of phones in a general population and collect their responses. Unfortunately I have not been able to find any platforms that give a survey facility without the need for internet or for the form to be downloaded on the device beforehand. Can you think of any? (I have looked into FrontlineSMS and others, but they either don't have particularly elaborate survey capability or if they do, it is app based, not SMS based)>

Hi Ayesha,

On the open source front, in addition to Frontline SMS, I expect you already have looked at RapidSMS and FormHub. Vusion is SMS-centric, I believe.  You can find the source code for all of these on GitHub.

As I expect you also know, there are quite a few proprietary solutions that aim to do this sort of thing, with a variety of costing models.

If you have already decided on an open source solution for reasons of cost, I would caution you to consider TCO issues. It may well be that the open source platform you choose is cheaper in the end ... but that's not always the case. If you have chosen to go the open source route because it is, well, open, that is another story, of course.

Here's an old list of some of the tools that are being used for this sort of thing (although, as you note, most are not SMS-based, and most are not open source).

Good luck,

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