If You Are Still Collecting Data on Paper, You Are Wasting Everyone’s Time

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Way back in 2001, Satellife pioneered the use of PDA’s for health-related data collection in Uganda and Kenya. In the 15 years since, Satellife became the TechLab at FHI 360 and mobile data collection has become routine and easy with Open Data Kit, countless derivatives, and a whole plethora of companies dedicated to delivering seamless mobile data collection as a service.
Yet, there are still people advocating for paper-based surveys and projects that actually send out enumerators with questionnaires and clipboards. Why?
Here are five reasons why you are wasting everyone’s time if you are still collecting data on paper.
1. Accuracy
When humans fill out paper forms, they are bound to introduce simple errors, such as misspellings and numeric transpositions, that a digital form can look for and correct automatically. Electronic forms can also require specific formats, verify answers, and even add in geographic locations well beyond humans’ native abilities.
2. Speed
Paper-based forms require the paper form to be physically moved to a data input station, then input into data systems manually. This will add hours or even days to the data collection process. In addition, all data validation and aggregation has to wait on the paper form submission, preventing anything near real-time analysis of the data.
3. Feedback
Participants rarely see any feedback on their data collection efforts with paper forms, as the data collection and analysis process is too long to get any meaningful analysis back to participants in time for it to be relevant. However, mobile data collection can instantly showcase participant’s impact and their status relevant to others in the process. This includes those giving data, those collecting it, and key actors all along the decision matrix.
4. Inevitability
Whatever is collected using paper-based systems will be digitized eventually, so it might as well start digital, and save the countless hours and efforts of an analog effort. Quality digital data collection systems will usually be faster and cheaper than paper – even when factoring in the mobile tools needed to collect the data. And this has been true since 2006 – a decade ago!
5. Planning
Finally, analog data collection is often done with minimal planning, creating multiple issues during and after data collection. Yet digital data collection can force a level of planning that doesn’t happen with paper collection, increasing the overall data collection effectiveness of an organization for that survey, and all future ones.
Still Undecided?
Check out the Mobile-based Technology for Monitoring & Evaluation reference guide on the benefits of real-time data sharing and data analysis. The Guide has three informative sections:

  1. Quick Start: Is mobile-based monitoring and evaluation for you? How to get started?
  2. Mobile Technology: How is mobile technology better than paper survey? What are your choices?
  3. Implementing Mobile Technology in M&E: How to roll out a mobile system? What are best practices, dos and don’ts?

The five reasons were collected electronically on Facebook – an awesome survey tool few use effectively.