Q&A: Jessica Hall on making the switch to digital data collection

Jessica Hall, agri-health support lead for AgImpact. Photo by: Jessica Hall

Big data can help the development sector better understand its work and outcomes, analyzing both the progress and challenges of their work. Creating big data, however, requires microlevel collection, which many organizations still record on paper, rather than digitally.

Jessica Hall, agri-health support lead for AgImpact, will be presenting new insights on implementing mobile-acquired data technology for projects supported by the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research at the 2017 Research for Development Impact conference in Sydney on June 13 and 14. In advance of the conference, Devex spoke with Hall about the lessons she is hoping to share with Australia’s development sector. Our conversation is below, edited for length and clarity.

Can you discuss your work with ACIAR on supporting the digital capture of data within development projects?

The work we’ve been doing, funded by ACIAR, began through the discovery that a lot of their research projects were putting a large chunk in the budget towards digital data capture. So they wanted to understand more about the financial and time investment associated with this, especially the costs associated with shifting from paper-based data collection to mobile data collection.

That’s where AgImpact came in to run a study, to look at the various tools available and to identify a tool appropriate to the needs of most ACIAR-funded projects.

For the purposes of the ACIAR projects, we are using CommCare software, which came out on top [compared to] other products for its ability to work offline and sync data across forms to simplify the data collection processes.

Nine projects took up the initial trial and use of CommCare, and AgImpact have been supporting them through that process. These include projects based in Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, Vietnam and Pakistan. In supporting these projects, we have trained [implementers] to use tools, build apps, and we have been analysing the time and financial investment involved to adopt mobile capture tools in ACIAR-funded projects.

Through this work, we have been able to see the challenges, benefits and unexpected outcomes, which we want to share.

How important is it to have a consistent data capture platform across projects? Does that facilitate greater sharing of data?

Absolutely. One of the things we were finding in working on this project is that [ACIAR projects] were collecting somewhat similar sorts of data — particularly demographic data. Within a programmatic platform, an application can be used to collect and share data across projects, simplifying work processes.

From ACIAR’s side, you can have a library of information collected to ensure people are not duplicating efforts.

The research series wraps up in September, and we will then be having ongoing discussions on the next steps to increase data capture and information sharing.

What are the challenges in moving from a paper-based data collection process?

While some of our participants had some mobile data collection experience, most were transitioning from a paper-based process. Particularly in the settings of ACIAR projects, there are logistical factors that can create challenges. Although with CommCare you can collect data offline, at some point you need a decent connection to send data to the server. This can be a challenge in low- and middle-income countries.

Other challenges include the way to prepare and plan for data capture, compared to a paper-based approach.

Lots of people get excited by the potential of not having to enter data at the back end, but projects implementing for the first time will require a lot of time investment up front to plan, prepare and build capacity of their systems and team members to use the tool in the field. So the first project implementing the new system needs to factor in the additional time and cost associated with the setup. Subsequent projects can then benefit from that investment.

But there also needs to be a dedicated person within the team focusing on data capture and maintenance. A lot of people think they can do this on top of their existing workloads, and that’s where things can fail. One of the things we have found is that if you are building capacity of local staff to do this, it’s not only about having them engaged and involved. It also having the organization supporting them engaged and involved. Otherwise the implementation of the tool may not work. This requires investment in resources through a dedicated person supporting the project and organization.

What have been the achievements of the pilot project so far?

One of the biggest findings is on the two-way knowledge that happens through capturing the information digitally. Traditionally with paper, the information is captured and there is a time lag between when it is entered into computers and analyzed. But now, that it is happening in real time. Researchers are getting information much faster, and the opportunity to communicate that back to the field is pretty incredible.

What we are seeing is that this is helping in the connection between researcher and developing communities being supported. By sharing data they are working together to address issues.

What are the plans for this project beyond September?

We will first be sharing the outcome of this project and engaging in a discussion with ACIAR. The information will hopefully be used to help projects build this capability within their budgets, as a lot of people are either over- or underestimating how much money is required to support this capability.

Long-term, there is the potential for ACIAR to have an integrated database which can collate data from their projects. It is early days yet, but I see mobile data collection is an important practice for future projects.

What are some of the messages you want other NGOs or operators of research projects in developing countries to take away from your work?

For anyone looking to move in the direction of digital data collection, we are keen to provide them with insights into what to expect. Having worked with all of these projects, we have gained quite a good insight into the pros and cons of these systems and processes that need to be put in place if you are heading down this road.

Largely, in low- and middle-income countries, a system selected needs to be able to work offline. But there is also a cost factor: It needs to be relatively cheap in low- and middle-income countries.

You need to think about the data that needs to be collected. It can still be time consuming to collect and manage data, so it is important to prioritize information that is needed and going to be used.

But above all, it is important to be aware that while there is investment in time and cost required for the initial project using a new system such as this, there are huge benefits to the next project and project after that, which do not require the same level of training and support. By sharing information, projects can support each other and reduce the time investment needed to capture data. It has certainly been beneficial to the projects we have worked with.

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About the author

  • Lisa Cornish

    Lisa Cornish is a Senior Reporter based in Canberra, where she focuses on the Australian aid community. Lisa formerly worked with News Corp Australia as a data journalist for the national network and was published throughout Australia in major metropolitan and regional newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph in Melbourne, Herald Sun in Melbourne, Courier-Mail in Brisbane, and online through news.com.au. Lisa additionally consults with Australian government providing data analytics, reporting and visualization services. Lisa was awarded the 2014 Journalist of the Year by the New South Wales Institute of Surveyors.