If you google “mobile data collection”, you might think that this technique for data gathering is the greatest thing since sliced bread.
“Mobilize your team!”
“Any place, any time, any device!”
“Collect field data and conduct field surveys faster and easier than ever before.”
Sounds great, doesn’t it? Of course it does.
The Benefits of Mobile Data Collection
Mobile data collection — using mobile phones to gather data — is rapidly gaining popularity. It’s touted as the more efficient, effective way to gather information, particularly in the world of international development. And from one perspective, it makes a lot of sense. Mobile data collection:
- Requires a smaller workforce to gather data
- Doesn’t rely on paper records, which are expensive and prone to data entry errors
- Supplies digital data that’s ready to work with
- Doesn’t require a prohibitively costly upfront investment
Loads of prestigious organizations promote mobile data collection as a “new and improved” way of gathering data — especially impact data.
“All you need to understand your social performance data is a mobile phone and the will to start. What could be simpler?”
From the Acumen website
The thing about mobile data collection is this: it works really well if you want to understand what your customers or clients are thinking. It’s great for feedback or satisfaction surveys. But impact analysis is a different story. If you want a robust statistical analysis that can determine if your project is working (or who it is working for), mobile data collection can create problems.
The Problems with Mobile Data Collection
The biggest, most significant problem with mobile data collection is bias. Say you’re gathering information from people on their mobile phones. The only way to receive representational data is to conduct your study in a community in which everyone — from every social stratum — is equally likely to own a mobile phone.
Mobile Phone Ownership is Not as Widespread as You Think
But I’m not working in a third-world country! My mobile data collection project is only in the US!
It doesn’t matter. Even in the western world, you will run into issues with mobile data collection. The Pew Research Center has a Mobile Fact Sheet on mobile phone ownership in the US. And while a significant number of Americans now own a cell phone, gathering data via SMS survey risks marginalizing groups with lower adoption rates:
- Women (less likely to own a phone than men)
- Seniors (significantly less likely to own a phone than other age groups)
- High school dropouts (less likely than those with higher education)
- Low-income households
- Rural households
To compare, use Data Fiinder to examine mobile phone ownership and access in a number of African and Asian countries. The conclusion is obvious: mobile data collection couldn’t be used anywhere without excluding significant portions of the population.
No matter where in the world you look, the data says the same thing. Relying on mobile phones to collect data risks excluding:
- Poor people
- Vulnerable populations
- Visible minorities
Respondents Might Not Be Answering Accurately
And that’s not all. If you played with the Data Fiinder link above, you may have also noticed that you can choose to view how many people own a mobile phone or how many people have access to a mobile phone. This raises another worrying issue with mobile data collection.
How do you know your respondent isn’t being pressured or influenced as they answer your questions? And how do you know they understand what you are asking?
If you’re asking a person questions face-to-face, you stand a fair chance of being able to tell if they’re answering honestly. You can also determine if they understand what you’re asking. If you’re simply sending texts, there is no way to know who or what might be influencing the responses you receive. And again, it is socially vulnerable populations — the very groups you’re probably working to help — who are most likely to be affected.
Collect Data Wisely
None of this means that mobile data collection is inherently evil. It is a tool and, like all tools, is great when you use it as intended. But it can be destructive if used carelessly. If you need help collecting data in a way that won’t marginalize the very groups you want to support, we can help. The experts at Datassist are happy to aid your team in data collection, analysis, visualization, and storytelling. Drop us a line today.