April 23, 2016

How to use mobile data collection tools to improve global development work

Mobile communications networks have surged in developing countries and so has the availability of smartphones and tablets. These tools offer interesting new ways for collecting field data. Digital surveys replace pen and paper, text messages replace pamphlets and GPS replaces pins on a paper map.

To guide us through the use of the new tools on offer, E4C has teamed with leaders in mobile technology for global development and other ICT4D to present eight videos in our Mobile Data Collection Webinar Series. Their recorded talks can also be found below and on our YouTube channel.

Sponsored by the Development Impact Lab and E4C, the Mobile Data Collection Webinar Series offers software demos, how-to guides and product highlights that show the range of open source, free or low-cost tools at your disposal.

[Please browse all of our latest webinars on our Professional Development page.]

Mobile Data Collection: A New Frontier of Tech4Dev Research

Faizan Diwan at Dobility, Inc., Tom Plagge at The Impact Lab, Ravi Agarwal at engageSPARK and Dav Clark at Berkeley D-Lab lead this exploration of data collection tools.

You will learn about the challenges of data collection in field research, how to leverage tools to collect more accurate and timely data, and you’ll hear about the future of this quickly expanding field.

Open Data Kit

Opening with a snapshot of the history of data collection from 1790 to the present, Open Data Kit (ODK) co-founder Waylon Brunette takes us on a fast-paced tour of some of the tool’s thousands of applications, including an overview of the newly launched ODK 2.0. ODK is an open-source, modular set of tools for building mobile data collection systems. It is an out-of-the-box solution for organizations to create, deploy, and manage mobile data collection solutions. The goal is to create an ecosystem of data collection tools for mixing and matching as needed.

Since much of ODK 1.x style functionality has been covered by the previous presentations, this will provide a brief introduction to ODK 1.x with a discussion of some of the successes and lessons learned. The second half will give a preview of the new ODK 2.0 tool suite, which is a parallel set of tools designed from user feedback.


Joe Reisinger, CTO and co-founder of Premise, shows us how decision makers can use his tools to track global economic and development trends in real time. Premise blends mobile technology with a global network of paid contributors in 34 countries. Together they generate insights that enable decision makers to monitor global issues such as the price and availability of food, access to health and human services, and the progress of government revenue recovery efforts. Some of the world’s largest institutions use Premise’s data in their work to reduce resource insecurity, improve resilience and advance social progress.

VOTO Mobile

The Ghana-based technology start-up VOTO Mobile employs interactive SMS (text messages) and voice calls to enable businesses and organizations to share information and gather feedback. Melissa Persaud, VOTO’s Regional Director of Programs, takes us on a tour.

Survey CTO

Faizan Diwan at Dobility, Inc. guides us in a fast-paced demo and training workshop on SurveryCTO. This tool enables Computer-Assisted Personal Interviews to capture, transport, and process data collected during interviews.


KoBoToolbox is a suite of free, open-source tools for field data collection in challenging environments. Most users are people working in humanitarian crises, aid professionals or researchers working in developing countries. KoBoToolbox’s team of developers and researchers are based in Cambridge, MA, as well as Colorado, Canada, and Chile. Our guide through this overview is Dr. Phuong Pham, an Assistant Professor at Harvard Medical School and Director of Evaluation and Implementation Science at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative.


Wthin minutes, engageSPARK enables anyone, anywhere to build and launch SMS and Voice Call alerts, surveys, reminders, educational curicula and on-demand information campaigns. NGOs and governments anywhere can use engageSPARK to share their messages with anybody in the world who has a mobile phone. Co-founder Avner Mizrahi takes us on an entertaining tour.

And for a quirky-but-effective take on text and voice messages campaigns, see our coverage of the soap operas that engageSPARK developed with Mercy Corps:

Soap operas by phone teach the power of savings in crisis zones

Beyond E4C Webinars: More Mobile Data Collection Tools Specialized for Global Development

Under time and resource constraints we weren’t able to feature some of the other major organizations doing good work in mobile data collection tools. These are a few that have caught our attention, and we’re glad to share their insight here.


Dimagi got its start in MIT’s Media Lab in 2002 and built a reputation for quality open-source software solutions to issues in healthcare in emerging economies. Today the company has 600 projects in 60 countries and hass branched beyond healthcare to work in agriculture, supply chain and distribution for retail goods and any field that can use mobile technology to streamline efficiency. One of Dimagi’s flagship products is Commcare, a drag-and-drop mobile app builder. With this tool, organizations working in global development can build their own custom mobile data collection system. The tools can track data offline, in multiple languages, share data among team members located around the world and solve many of the problems that can be unique to global development organizations. The video is an overview. for more information and a personal demo please visit dimagi.com.


Magpi (formerly EpiSurveyor) launched in 2003 and is the first cloud-based data collection system designed for global health and international development. The company now has more than 65,000 users worldwide, including the World Health Organization, US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, UNICEF, UNFPA, CARE, and the IFRC. Notably, the WHO is using Magpi in its effort to eradicate polio.

Nearly all of Magpi’s users pay nothing for it. The software has a free basic version for app-based data collection with no time limits. The software allows non-technically trained users to create data collection forms, messaging systems and interactive reports without the need for programming. By eliminating the technical requirement, Magpi lowers to total cost of operation. For three years in a row, the software was rated the least expensive mobile data collection system by Kopernik’s Rockefeller-funded rankings.

Magpi offers these functions:

* Apps for Android and iOS smart devices
* SMS (text message)
* IVR (voice message)
* Outgoing broadcast, timed text and audio messaging
* Built-in reporting and visualization (see a live sample report here)
* Zapier integration to other web-based systems (like Google Sheets and Salesforce)

More videos can be found on the Magpi’s Vimeo page.


FLOW was conceived among water experts, but the software is not restricted to water organizations. It is, at its heart, an elegant system for mapping data. It has been used to manage medical supplies, monitor food security, it was recently placed on tablets to survey voters in the Solomon Islands, it has tracked illegal fishing expeditions, and much more.

The tool allows you to easily gather, transmit, analyze and visualize lots of data that lots of people collect with their smartphones or other mobile devices. It can record GPS coordinates, photos, videos and text, then it bundles all that together and transmits it for display.

[See also: Data Mapping Has a New Look With Akvo FLOW’s First Major Update]


Poimapper is a digital data collection tool that can map and visualize data through photos and GPS tags using mobile devices. It automatically tags each entry with location coordinates. The completed forms can be uploaded to a server or platform for processing, analysis and display.

Poimapper derives its name from Points of Interest (POIs). The tool was developed as a collaboration between the software developer Pajat Lounamaaa and the international development organization Plan Finland. It was first developed and piloted with Plan Kenya in 2009. Since then it has been used in Plan Burkina Faso to map water points, health centers, schools and other infrastructure; Plan Thailand, for monitored medical treatment of rural patients; Tearfund, where it has helped monitor maternal care of patients with and without HIV in several countries, and CARE, where Poimapper helped collect data about female entrepreneurs in the Philippines.

Poimapper has been used in private business as well. For example, Airliquide uses the tool to map and monitor industrial gas products, and Safaricom uses Poimapper to survey customers of its telecom services in Kenya. See more at poimapper.com.

SocialCops Collect

SocialCops launched to empower the crowd to conduct “social audits” and solve local problems in Singapore, something like the street cops do for crime. Prukalpa Sankar and Varun Banka founded the company when they were students. Their first pilots were two crowdsourced projects that rated the cleanliness of streets and mapped broken street lights.

“We’ve since evolved into a platform that integrates data from multiple sources – crowdsourced data, primary data from local field workers, secondary data from over 600 public data sources & internal organizational data – and convert it into meaningful insights. Over 150 partners in at least seven countries including the Government of India, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Unilever use our platform to run baseline surveys, create real-time monitoring systems, make strategic investment decisions, visualize data through interactive dashboards, and more,” Surendran Balachandran, who heads growth and partnerships at SocialCops, told E4C.

“We are building for the next billion and our engineers visit our field partners to understand how to optimize battery consumption, heating up of tablets, optimize GPS use, generate quick analytics on the app, do complex mapping without internet, yet at the same time create the simplest looking application to Collect good quality data from the remotest part of the country,” Balachandran says.

SocialCops regularly offers webinars as how-to guides and demonstrations at webinar.socialcops.com.


TaroWorks is a mobile data management tool based on Salesforce.com. It began as a project with Grameen Foundation helping Grameen manage agricultural extension workers for social enterprises in rural areas. TaroWorks has since been developing and distributing this field data management tool to benefit other social enterprises and non-profits, who have their own field staff, in other countries and other industries.

“Our vision is to make it as easy to manage across the last mile as it is across the first mile,” Elaine Chang, TaroWorks’ Senior Manager of Global Market Development, told E4C.

“This means that in addition to collecting data, we make it possible to push tailored information back out to field agents – making it possible for them to see personal assignments of things like regions or schools or farmers, to view previously collected data about their assignments, and to view performance metrics while offline,” Chang says.

TaroWorks has helped social enterprises such as IluMéxico expand operations with better organization. IluMéxico tracks sales of its solar devices in rural Mexico, keeps tabs on the equipment that breaks and pays its growing fold of field staff using TaroWorks data collection and analysis tools. Likewise, the non-profit Trees for the Future used TaroWorks to survey East African communities, identifying the regions that were most impoverished and most in need of their seeds and tree-planting know-how.

For more, please see taroworks.org.

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