Monitoring with Mobiles: Using Mobile Phones as a Convenient and Cost-Effective Survey Tool

How do you collect almost 4155 household surveys across five countries in under a month and be certain that all the data ends up in one location?   For Farm Radio International, the solution was Mobile Researcher – an application that lives on a basic nokia mobile phone and can help conduct surveys face to face with farmers.    The service was provided by Populi, based in South Africa.

In less than one month, the African Farm Radio Research Initiative (AFRRI) was able to measure the impact of it’s four month long participatory radio campaigns (PRCs) by using approximately 40 low end nokia mobile phones and 40 different enumerators/fieldworkers across five countries.  The PRCs, which were designed and aired by AFRRI’s 25 radio partners in five countries (Ghana, Mali, Tanzania, Uganda and Malawi) were designed to improve the food security and agriculture productivity for smallholder farmers in Africa.  During the one month long evaluation of the PRCs the Mobile Researcher software was used to design, customize and install the surveys in each country through the use of one website.  The website features an intuitive set of online tools which also allow detailed monitoring of each phones/enumertors’ progress as well as analysis of results – All in one central online location.

AFRRI is implemented by Farm Radio International, and funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The research for development project was designed to evaluate the effectiveness of PRCs  on improving the food security and agriculture productivity for smallholder farmers.  The project set out to answer two questions:

“How and in what ways is radio most effective in enabling smallholder farmers in Africa to address their food security and agriculture challenges?” and “How can new technologies increase the effectiveness of radio as a sustainable, interactive development communication tool?”

Says Sheila Huggins-Rao,  Program Coordinator for AFRRI,

“The tool is an efficient and reliable means for research and development organizations to collect information from remote areas, in a timely, and non-intrusive manner, with a built in monitoring system for fieldwork. It has changed the way we at Farm Radio International conduct our surveys”

Several research activities took place over the course of the project. A rural rapid appraisal determined the key agriculture and food security challenges in 75 rural communities faced in each of the five countries; a baseline survey with 4000 households captured data on agriculture practices, radio listening practices and demographic information of farming households and a capacity needs assessment involved radio broadcasters to determine their technical and training needs that AFRRI could support.

These studies were all conducted using paper-based tools and administered face to face. It took several weeks to collect the data, to translate the answers from the local languages to English and then several more weeks to process and analyze the findings. Also, if there were challenges in the field, with inputting the data, the enumerators understanding the question or not finding enough respondents, it was difficult to address the challenges immediately.  Often times, challenges were not shared until field reports were submitted.

With Mobile Researcher, troubleshooting is ongoing throughout the fieldwork so that any minor glitches in the technology or the survey can be corrected and simply updated through the phone.

Also, odd data sets, suspiciously long or short interview durations were easily monitored from Ottawa office.  “We knew that the survey would take anywhere between twenty and thirty minutes so we could check on anomalies immediately and pinpoint the exact moderator that submitted that survey.” says Mark Leclair, ICT for Development Officer with Farm Radio International.

Ben Fiafor, AFRRI’s country coordinator in Ghana was very impressed with the software.

“My first impression about the Mobile Researcher is that it is very fast and convenient to use and it has many ways to cross check the work of the enumerators in the field. The enumerator training didn’t take long so long as they know how to use the SMS function on a phone.”

Girma Hailu, the Research Manager found the tool to invaluable.  “Summarized charts and figures are automatically generated and the entire data can be transferred into excel for further analysis. There is no monetary value to the satisfaction it gave me knowing what it means to access and proofread data from multi country field sites.”

The 42 month project is expected to end by December 2010 after producing and sharing the research findings. The survey conducted using mobile researcher was the latest and final major survey before the project ends. A total of 90 communities were involved in the survey. While the enumerators were out in the field, the management team in Ottawa was able to track the progress of each enumerator and how each question is being answered.

In Ghana, 74% of respondents said they listened to radio every day.  In Mali, the survey showed that 15.4 % of respondents started composting this year, while the campaigns were broadcast and 24.6% began between 1 to 2 years, when AFRRI began.

In Malawi, when asked about hearing the voice of farmers on the radio, close to 80% said that it encourages them to practice the agricultural technology they are advising and makes them want to listen more. This gives us evidence that when farmers hear other farmers on the radio, they are interested and engaged in what is being said on the radio.

The use of the mobile phone also provides a more efficient and community friendly way of collecting information without taking too much time from the farmers, and ensuring that community respondents are not misinterpreted through the data collection.Mr. Fiafor comments on how the mobile survey will change their partnerships with communities.

“I was surprised when some community members share their observation about the use of the mobile phone as a better tool than the paper we write. They believe that with the mobile phone the information goes straight to the authority for the necessary action while information collected using the note may be discarded after the interview. This is giving more credence to our relationship with the communities we serve with our work.”

While the tool doesn’t replace the need for a well crafted, well designed survey, it enables surveys to be administered remotely, while monitoring and troubleshooting throughout the process. This leaves more time to devote to in-depth interviews, using more multi-media to document field visits and ensuring that the surveys are designed to collect right kinds of data.

So, what does this mean for the future work of research for development initiatives? More input from development and research beneficiaries can be included in all aspects of project design, implementation and monitoring.  Researchers will be able to collect data more effectively. Rural farming communities will have less disruptions and will be more willing to participate in surveys that do not take as much time. Research and development organizations will be able to collect information from their partners prior to, during and after projects are delivered. This will, over time create more innovative research, more collaborative initiatives for African farmers and ultimately more effective ways of working together globally.

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