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Alumni Dispatches

Smartphones and Open Source Software: Contemporary Community Survey Tools

Garima Deveshwar Bahl, MPH ’04

AT SNEHA, (Society for Nutrition, Education and Health Action) the NGO I work with in Mumbai, India, we are conducting a large cluster randomized controlled trial to test the impact of setting up local health resource centers on maternal, reproductive and child health and nutrition in 20,000 households. SNEHA and University College London have collaborated under this with the common purpose of improving the health of women and children in vulnerable slum areas.

My colleague from UCL, Glyn Alcock, who is a qualitative researcher but also a techno laggard, hesitated at the proposition of designing an electronic data collection system. Extensive research on his part culminated in the study using Android smartphones and open-source software (Open Data Kit). Setting everything up was relatively easy, despite having to navigate ‘appspots’ and ‘Extensible Markup Language.’

Trained enumerators with minimal technical expertise are conducting the survey to collect baseline social, health and GPS data. As Android does not support the Hindi font, we are using transliterated questions. We have completed 4,000 so far. Our enumerators have been very comfortable with this technology leap and enjoy using it.

The respondents, in turn, seem unperturbed by this method of data collection. Costs have been reduced as data collection is efficient and less labor-intensive, avoiding manual data entry almost completely. Now data is validated upon collection and is quickly available for viewing and analysis.

The experience has been revealing. None of our major fears—like enumerators’ incapability to use the phones or crashing of the system—have been substantiated. We have encountered minor hitches in recording of GPS locations and receiving data, but have been able to troubleshoot ourselves.

Garima Deveshwar-Bahl is Program Director of SNEHA: Society for Nutrition, Education and Health Action. For more information: www.snehamumbai.org

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