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Offline Mobile Data Collection


Steve Cohn
17 November 2014

If you are reading this you may have tried iSURVEY or droidSURVEY or someone else’s app but I’d like to share some thoughts on offline data collection.

Firstly let me tell you this - Making an app and a supporting systems for offline data collection is hard!  

Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.  It is a difficult technical problem to solve but the value is so great that it’s absolutely worth the effort so long as it’s done right.

Why is it hard?  One word – Complexity...  

We’ve been doing offline data capture apps for 5 years now.  We were certainly one of the first if not the very first company to provide this feature on mobile devices.  We’ve learned a lot.  Here are a few points that you should consider when you are looking for mobile data capture apps.

Reliability

As you can imagine if a problem is complex and hard to solve there are many things that can go wrong.  Everyone will tell you that their apps are reliable but are there fail-safes in place?  

  • Do the devices log every action that they take so the logs can be uploaded if something goes wrong?
  • Do the servers log every result uploaded to make sure that if something goes wrong there is a fall back copy of the result held in the logs?
  • Is there a robust conversation between the devices and the servers to ensure that results are only removed from the device when the server has safely stored them?

Ease of use

There is always a learning curve but how steep is it?

  • Is it easy to understand how to set up the app with the data capture form and how to upload results once you have a connection?
  • Is it easy to see how many results there are on the device so you know how many you will upload?
  • Do the data capture forms work quickly without annoying delays as they move from question to question and form to form?

Security

I’m sure you don’t want just anyone to know about your questionnaire and your data collected may be highly confidential. 

  • Are all network connections to the devices and website made over the secure standard of SSL?
  • Is there a robust method of making sure that third parties cannot access questionnaires from the website nor on the devices?
  • Is the data encrypted or obfuscated on the devices?
  • Is there a method of making sure that the interviewer cannot review a respondents data unless the questionnaire has been set up to specifically allow this?
  • Can the data collected be locked down to make sure the interviewer cannot change the data unless they are allowed to?

Support

Things can go wrong!  Even if the software on the devices and the servers is well written and robust the software makers have no control over the networks.  The core reason that offline is needed is that networks can sometimes not work as they are supposed to. 

  • Do the support staff understand the product so they can quickly troubleshoot and either resolve or escalate problems?
  • Do the support staff have good written and verbal communication skills?
  • Do you feel that someone actually cares about your problem?

And finally…

Don’t forget the advantages of data collection on mobile devices

  • Fast turnaround of the data – don’t wait for forms to be rekeyed into your database
  • Save money as well as time by uploading the data instead of paying for rekeying
  • Improved accuracy – whatever is entered on the device is sure to be what arrives in your data
  • Great flexibility in change and distribution of updates to forms compared to paper
  • Improved respondent and / or interviewer satisfaction – research shows that people just prepare using a mobile device that pen and paper

That’s all until next time.


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