Friday, 30 October 2015

We're going MAD for digital data!

The plight of paper based surveys and data collection is well known to many researchers out there, where data written on paper needs to be later entered into a digital spread, such as excel. This duplicates that number of times and people handling the data before it is analysed and reported on. This can introduce errors into the data and it can be months after the data is collected before the researcher or project leader can see what is actually happening in the field.

A farmer having his photo being taken using Survey CTO. Source: Jack Hetherington

The phrase "there's an app for that" is true for so many things, including collecting data. Some of these apps have remarkable capabilities to capture GPS coordinates, videos, pictures and audio; scan QR codes and RFID tags; and many more. In fact there are so many out there it is hard to figure out which one to pick. It can be so daunting it may be more appealing to build your own digital data collection application to suit your needs. This is a very resource heavy and time consuming activity to establish, which is essentially reinventing the wheel. Furthermore, the ongoing support and upkeep of a custom program can be hugely draining on further resources.

Recently ACIAR, commissioned an evaluation of commercially available digital data collection application (DDCA's) to determine which one (or ones) best suit the context of ACIAR's projects. Starting with over a dozen applications the small research activity (SRA) narrowed it down to two which were put through their paces in the Mobile Acquired Data (MAD) pilot.

A farmer's story being captured by video using a DDCA. Source: Jack Hetherington

The team led by Stuart Higgins, a consultant based in Indonesia, and partnering with Udayana University and an NGO called Kopernik, pushed these apps until breaking point and threw every kind of curve ball at them to determine how robust these tools are at data collection in remote and rural environments. There was even a project leader from an ACIAR project embedded in the team to give it some authenticity - David McGill from the ASLP dairy project. Comm Care and Survey CTO are two very powerful DDCA’s which were identified as having very powerful capabilities from the desktop evaluation. Graduates from Udyana University used these two apps to compare their features and suitability with smallholder farmers. An important contribution these digital tools provided was to the process of data collection and improved interaction between each person along the data and information chain, that is the farmers, field researchers, project leaders and ACIAR.

Bessy the Balinese cow telling her story to one of the graduates from the University of Udayana. Source: Jack Hetherington

On Tuesday, Stuart and David presented to ACIAR the outcomes of the evaluation conducted in the Gerokgak region in Bali, Indonesia. This stimulated a lot of interesting discussions around how ACIAR can best optimise the benefits of these tools for its projects management and implementation, as well as monitoring and evaluation. It is clear from this evaluation that going “digital” is the way to go for large projects. However, the features of these applications will need to be channeled to get the best added value of these tools to project data collection. I would compare this to the weird and wonderful animations in PowerPoint. You can have every line of text and every picture fly, swivel and bounce onto the slide but is this in fact adding value to your presentation. The same goes for DDCA’s. With these tools you can collect gigabytes of data and information by capturing everything through, video or audio. You will need to ask yourself are the questions being asked contributing relevant information to the project, and how can this information be easily extracted and aggregated to tell the bigger story?

The findings presented in Tuesday's discussions will be documented and published in the coming months. Thanks to Stuart, Dave and the rest of the team for their excellent work over the past year.

By Jack Hetherington, Research Officer, Social Science and Economics Cluster, ACIAR

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