Gadgets Get Better Data From The Field

Published on 28 April 2011

Mobile phones, tablets and other mobile devices are making it easier than ever to gather reliable information from the field and process it quickly. George Mu'ammar, from WFP’s Vulnerability Assessment Unit, talks about the gadgets WFP is using and how they’re changing the work of food security analysts.

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What kind of devices are we using and how are they helping us to get better information?
Primarily, we’re using personal digital assistants (PDAs) and simple mobile phones. We use PDAs for the larger data sets—household interviews which consist of 1,000 to 2,000 questions. Mobile phones we use for monitoring smaller data sets like market prices, cross border trade and nutritional indicators.
 

George Mu'ammar

George Mu’ammar (left) is a Geographic Information Systems and Information Management specialist. He has worked for WFP since 2006 and has trained and deployed mobile technology for data collection in more than 10 countries in West and Central Africa.

How it works

Watch this video of an assessment using PDAs in a refugee camp in Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo.

How is the work of monitors different now than it was when they were conducting the surveys with pen and ink?
Before, the numerators would skip questions by accident, or not skip the questions they were supposed to. Sometimes they’d jot down notes and it was all very confusing for the data entry clerks who had to enter in the results. Now, the software on the mobile devices forces the numerators to respond to all the mandatory question and enter data that fits inside the parameters outlined by the statisticians.
 
So how more quickly are we able to collect and tabulate the data than we were before?
The data collection occurs 20-30 per cent faster on a PDA than on paper. When it comes back, it will take minutes or up to an hour or two into a statistical analysis package. This used to take weeks and now we’re down to hours.
 
What about mobile phones? How are we using those?
We’ve actually been using cell phones in the field for over ten years. These days, we use a software package that contains a very simple form that a monitor can fill out and send by text message. That’s then screened by a server on the other end which double-checks the information. If it looks like there’s been an error, the monitor gets an SMS saying he’s done something wrong.
 
What about tablets? They’re all the rage right now—when are we going to start seeing them in the field?
Tablets have a lot of qualities that make them appealing for us. They all come with in-built GPS, wireless connectivity and multimedia capabilities and we’re already thinking about how to use them for data collection. The most immediate advantage is the screen size. The PDA screens are small and our questionnaires are very large and complicated. Tablets will let you see more of the questionnaire and be easier to fill out.