Top Tips for Converting Paper Forms to Digital Mobile Forms

 
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As mobile data collection tools become more user-friendly and smartphones/tablets become more affordable, international development practitioners are increasingly looking to utilize mobile technology in their efforts to collect project data. Part of my job as the ICT4D Specialist at Equal Access is to introduce mobile data collection tools to our country staff in Asia and West Africa and build their capacity to use them. Mobile data collection helps address some of the logistical challenges associated with Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E). Equal Access (EA) is a communications for social change organization that combines the power of media with community mobilization to inform, educate and inspire marginalized populations across Asia and West Africa. In addition to utilizing mobile technologies such as SMS and IVR to further engage our radio and television audiences, EA believes that mobile tech can be used to make M&E easier and more efficient for our staff.
Like many INGOs, Equal Access works in several difficult operating environments including Northern Nigeria, Chad, Niger, Burkina Faso, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nepal, Cambodia, and until recently, Yemen. Security concerns, poor infrastructure and the remote locations of Equal Access outreach workers make getting paper forms from the field to the country offices tremendously difficult. Paper M&E forms often have a perilous and uncertain journey between the field and the country office that may include security threats, unreliable courier services, and difficult terrain. These often cause a significant time lag between when forms are completed in the field and when the country office receives them. Then more time is lost as all of the data from the field is translated and entered into central M&E databases and finally made accessible to the U.S.-based headquarters.
Most implementers who have dealt with the resulting mountain of paperwork and the arduous data entry it requires have repeatedly thought, “There has to be a better way!” Indeed, there is! For this reason, mobile data collection tools are being adopted across organizations and programs at an exponential rate.
IMG_20150502_122419The Advantages of Mobile M&E
Mobile data collection tools allow outreach workers and NGO staff to more effectively gather M&E data. Outreach workers are able to enter data into digital Android Open Data Kit forms on mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets, sync their data with a central cloud server through a network data connection, and enable NGO staff to view and respond to real-time M&E data through web portals online. Mobile data collection tools can cut down on the expenses and logistical challenges associated with cumbersome, paper-based M&E systems and more effectively enable development implementers to monitor and evaluate their projects. Currently, Equal Access field teams utilize Dimagi’s open-source mobile data collection software CommCare to conduct surveys, record beneficiary feedback, and track behavior change across a wide range of projects, from improving agricultural practices amongst rural farmers in Afghanistan to countering violent extremism among youth in the Sahel.
The Transition to Mobile M&E
The reason for replacing traditional paper methods with mobile data collection tools such as CommCare, Magpi, and FormHub seems intuitive, but it can often prove challenging for field teams inexperienced in digital data collection. Gradually over the past year, all of our country programs have made the shift towards mobile M&E. The change, however, has not always been easy. The first major challenge to begin implementing mobile M&E is converting current paper-based forms to digital Xforms. After working with each Equal Access country team on restructuring their M&E systems, I have composed the following recommendations for field staff transitioning from paper-based to digital M&E.
Top Tips for Converting Paper-Based Forms to Mobile-Ready Digital Forms

  1. Be data-driven. Think about how you want to examine and interact with the data online. Think about how the data will appear on the backend of the system when designing questionnaires. Make sure that both Programs Teams and M&E Teams are involved in this process.
  2. Be selective about your questions. Determine what you need to collect vs. what might be interesting to know. Avoid making your questionnaires lengthy and laborious. Think about what the answers are providing to both you and your team. For example, rather than asking a generic question such as “How many people are in your household?” you might ask a more project specific question such as “How many children under the age of 2 years old do you have in your household?”
  3. Think about each question individually. Remember that a mobile device can only ask one question at a time, so matrices of questions will need to be separated.
  4. Think about the process of going through the form from a user’s perspective.
    1. Think about the natural, logical flow of conversation when ordering your questions. For example, ask respondents if they have access to a radio and if they listen to the radio before asking them about their favorite radio program.
    2. If the mobile form is to be used to facilitate a group discussion, think about what variables need to be answered before the discussion begins, such as location, and number of participants. Then think about the order of questions that makes the most sense for the group discussion facilitator inputting information into the mobile device.
  5. Identify each question type. Understand what types of questions can be asked by the mobile data collection tool you are using. For example, you may be able to choose between single answer or multiple answer question types or perhaps integer vs. decimal numeric question types. When drafting your mobile forms, make sure to identify what type of question each variable is.
  6. Utilize skip logics enabled in most mobile data collection tools. This will allow you to ask only relevant questions. For example, only ask questions regarding marriage if the respondent answers “married” to the “Are you married?” question.
  7. Avoid generic, vague text input questions as much as possible. When text input questions are utilized, make sure to be as specific as possible. Remember, you can use skip logics to make text input questions particularly specific. For example, you might ask
    1. Do you have any feedback for the program?
      1. Yes
      2. No
    2. (If yes) What kind of feedback do you have?
      1. Questions
      2. Comments
      3. Suggestions
    3. (If “Questions” is selected) What question(s) do you have for X program?
  1. Determine appropriate validations conditions. Many mobile data collection tools allow you to place validation conditions on the answers input by the mobile users into the phone or tablet. This allows your staff to safeguard against erroneous or irrelevant responses. For example, you may be interviewing young people for a project. When you ask the respondents their age, you can place a validation condition on the question stating the age entered by the enumerator must be between 15 to 25 years old. If the enumerator types in 26, then the device will display a constraint message informing the enumerator that the respondent and digital input must be between 15 and 25 years old.
  2. Utilize organizational human capital. Be sure to liaise with any ICT4D staff or consult any existing ICT resources in your organization!

Once your organization has drafted mobile-ready forms, it is time to start devoting time and resources to building staff capacity to use these mobile data collection tools. Best of luck in your organization’s transitions! Stay tuned for more ideas on these top tips next week on ICTworks.
Natasha Beale is the ICT4D Specialist at Equal Access International. She has lead the transition to mobile Monitoring and Evaluation techniques for Equal Access field offices. She also manages Equal Access’s use of mobile technology such as SMS and IVR for audience engagement in conjunction with EA media activities in the field. She has previously worked for the mobile data collection company Dimagi in India.