The 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: