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10 Lessons Learned in Scaling Mobile Data Collection Processes

By Guest Writer on October 3, 2019

mobile data collection lessons learned

In the last decade, Mobile Data Collection has been used more and more by humanitarian and development organizations for situation analyses, project monitoring, follow-up of activities and vulnerable populations, among other uses (some NGOs are even today planning for all of their quantitative data collections to be carried out on mobile devices).

Today, very few people in the sector doubt the relevance of Mobile Data Collection for many different kinds of uses – the main challenges concern more the question of how to implement these tools in the most effective and ethical way, and also to choose tools that can be used widely across an organization in the long run without a considerable investment in time and resources.

The lessons learned paper from five years of Mobile Data Collection at Terre des hommes, written by CartONG and released on the MDC Toolkit resource center, reflects on five years of experience gained by Terre des hommes (Tdh) implementing Mobile Data Collection projects in its countries of operation worldwide.

Its principle aim is to help field operations make the best use of Mobile Data Collection in their programs by summarizing the key lessons learned throughout these 5 years of Mobile Data Collection roll-out. It builds both on the institutional knowledge acquired over the years as well as on the experiences shared by three delegations (Iraq, Mali and Nepal) – deliberately different in terms of size, volume of operations, and types of interventions.

10 Lessons Learned in Mobile Data Collection

1. Only use MDC if you have the time to do it properly

Why? We have seen too many data collections where forms have not been conceived properly, the paper form being “simply” put on mobile with no reaping of the benefits of MDC.

As a consequence, enumerators might be blocked from doing their work in the field, if the GPS point is mandatory but the phone has a technical issue making it impossible to capture it for example, or a question does not have a comprehensive list of all possible answers – and this just should not happen!

Lesson 1: Stick to paper if you are not able to allocate sufficient time to plan your MDC You may also check out our “Mobile data collection: more quality, less cleaning!” blog post.

2. Focus on “analysis” from the beginning

Why? Building your analysis into your data collection tool helps you become more efficient before, during and after the data collection. In the first place, it encourages the right level of reflection before the data collection actually begins to ensure that all you will need (and only what you need!) in your analysis is indeed included.

It then makes it possible to check your results regularly while the data collection is still ongoing without making the process too long and dreary and -finally- it makes your analysis quicker and more efficient after the data collection is over.

Lesson 2: MDC is an enabler to improve the way you analyze your data

3. Don’t over complicate tools if you want to be sustainable

Why? Consider the time for capacity building of your teams and the turnover rate of your field operations before choosing to deploy a very advanced statistical or mapping tool. It may seem that these sophisticated solutions perfectly answer your need at a given moment but they are often not maintainable over time – due to its financial or long-term knowledge-building cost.

Same goes for your form conception: aim for “good enough” rather than “perfection”: above all, aim to ensure that the form is useful, without being overloaded with constraints and tweaks that a non tech-savvy form author might not be in a capacity to understand.

Lesson 3: “Easier is better” when it comes to analysis tools

4. Only use MDC when you need it

Why? MDC can sometimes be a victim of its success and used to answer all data collections needs, even when it is not appropriate or relevant. However, its usage should be dependent on the data collection needs and the M&E plan of a project and used concurrently with the qualitative methods that make sense (observation, key informant interviews, focus group discussions, etc.).

These qualitative methods – often under-used as they require more reflection or are less enticing in the approach – often provide information of great value to many of the questions asked in the context of a humanitarian project.

Lesson 4: Integrate the MDC implementation in the M&E approach to make it more impactful

5. Be sure to assign roles & responsibilities!

Why? Defining roles and responsibilities can be seen as the cornerstone of any new process that requires change management, and this is most certainly the case when one wants an institutional MDC approach. MDC should not only require the involvement of the Information Management or M&E teams but should be done with a strong commitment of all program teams.

This will help support a higher-quality data collection by ensuring a proper ownership of the process by the program teams. It will also optimize the technical skills needed by each team, encouraging program teams to use MDC for other purposes than M&E, such as the collection of data for the daily running of an activity – an often underused application of MDC.

Lesson 5: Ensure roles and responsibilities between M&E teams and Program Managers are clearly spelled out

6. Use MDC to improve the monitoring of your teams

Why? When you have an internet connection that permits it, MDC enables you to have a better understanding of what is going on in the field. It can support you in checking up on the content of the data collected regularly to see if anything has been misunderstood or isn’t being done as it should so as to make timely feedback before this impacts data quality. It is particularly useful to monitor data collections that occur in remote areas or in several locations at once.

Lesson 6: MDC makes possible more efficient team supervision

7. Don’t see data protection only as a constraint

Why? As a humanitarian organization that seeks to support vulnerable populations, protection is and always should be a key principle. A such, “doing no digital harm” should be part of the answer to a crisis and not – as is often the case – seen only as a problem to solve.

Each humanitarian organization should therefore see its implementation as an opportunity to rethink the data collection approach, as it impacts many different topics such as the legal basis for the data collection of multimedia (such as photos, recordings or GPS locations), or the data security and retention of data stored on online platforms. Such efforts will support the spreading of a responsible data culture.

Lesson 7: Why data protection should not be the fifth wheel of the wagon

8. Capacity building is not a one-shot initiative

Why? Initial capacity and knowledge building should be considered as an exercise to be maintained over time through:

  • refresher trainings, workshops or webinars that can also serve as community building and horizontal transfer of skills,
  • accessible support (one-to-one support, hotlines, etc.) and
  • material made available (policies, documentation, global tools, feedback from other experiences, etc.).

This helps to ensure that the approach is endorsed over time throughout the organization.

Lesson 8: MDC is not a one-shot capacity building exercise

9. Don’t reinvent the wheel!

Why? Capitalizing on past experiences is simply the best way to improve future practices. By reminding field operations of what worked or didn’t work in other projects, they avoid making the same mistakes over and over again.

Lesson 9: Why improving the capitalization around MDC experiences is key for any organization

10. Invest time to carefully plan your MDC strategy

Why? Even though MDC is often seen as a game-changer in projects, deploying an institutional strategy takes a lot of energy and resources to ensure it will permeate the different geographies and profiles of the organization. This should therefore be carefully planned and thought through, as forgetting or underestimating one component- such as change management or communication – can compromise the whole approach.

Lesson 10: Remember that MDC is a long-term organizational approach and investment

Photo credit: Tdh / Harber Mahamane

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