Phoning it in: Using mobile phones to collect data

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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


Michael Trucano

Visiting Fellow, Brookings, and Global Lead for Innovation in Education, World Bank

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