Tag Archives: SMS

The Beginnings of Data Collection – The First Baby Steps in a Marathon

Data. Information. Data collection. Good data. Big data. Data-for-development.

More and more, data is becoming an important tool within the humanitarian world to aid project design and define programme objectives. Data allows for real-time monitoring and evaluation, adapting projects to changing circumstances, and ultimately making projects and initiatives more effective. Everyday it seems a new tool or platform is developed to collect, analyze, and visualize data. But, for those of us that aren’t as experienced as the techies developing these (cool) tools, navigating the data collection waters can be overwhelming. Decisions need to be made about what data to collect, how to collect it, and  how it will be used and shared.

Below is quick, three-step process to begin thinking about data collection. The questions are not intended to provide a comprehensive “how to guide,” but should instead begin to stimulate thinking about the data collection process.

1) Deciding what data to collect is the first step when thinking about data collection. It’s true that a myriad of tool exists to collect data from FrontlineSMS to Formhub to Data Winners to TextIt to RapidSMS, and it is difficult to know which tool to choose. However, choosing the right technology is not the first step. Instead, knowing what information is desired and how it will be used is the first, and moreover, most important step.

Questions to think about when deciding what data to collect?

  • Is a specific piece of information desired? (Structured data collection)
  • Do you want to conduct an interactive poll that modifies questions based on previous answers? This is known as the skip logic method.
  • Who will benefit from this information?
  • Are partners involved?

2) Figure out the logistics of the project. Like all project design, context matters and solutions need to be designed around the situation on the ground. Many times understanding the contextual environment is the difference between a successful initiative and a so-called “failure.” For example, designing a Smartphone app for Community Health Workers and then learning that continual electricity doesn’t exist nor an Internet connection, could have been easily avoided if research had been completed about the end-users. Thinking about the following questions will not only contribute to the project design but will also help decide the appropriate technology to choose later on in the process.

Logistical and context questions to ponder:

  • Do you want continual data collection? At what interval and frequency?
  • Who will be doing the data collection?
  • Small-scale? Large scale?
  • Is there infrastructure to support SMS? Internet connections? Electricity to charge phones?

3) Choosing the best technology for the situation. The final step when thinking about data collection is the technology selection, and this happens only after the project designer knows what data is wanted and understands the working environment. Choosing technology can be a slightly daunting task as many tools and platforms exist. Answering a few questions will help guide the selection process.

Questions to help think about when making tech choices:

  • SMS or smartphone? Web? Interactive voice response (IVR)? Excel? (A useful list for SMS pros and cons is below.)
  • Which vendor to choose?
  • If a partner is involved will platforms be compatible?
  • Is an interactive feedback loop desired?
  • Do you want to visualize data and conduct analysis?
  • Would a cloud based system be suitable?

Pros and Cons to SMS outlined by Matt Berg:


  • Any phone
  • Any network (no data required)
  • Messages queued (don’t drop messages when out of network or phone is dead)
  • Toll-free (defray cost of end-user but difficult to set-up)
  • Effective for monitoring. Users can trained to effectively use structured SMS
  • East to broadcast. Good for reminders/alerts


  • Data quality / User error
  • Best effort delivery (message occasionally drop)
  • Not ideal for larger surveys
  • Literacy
  • Cost (high vs. data on wifi)
  • Data security

A multitude of data collection tools exist, and in order to choose the correct one understanding what is desired from the data collection is the first step before researching the tech landscape to make informed decision.

At the end of the day, data is supposed to enhance decision making by providing information that was previously unknown. Despite all of the various tools and methods for data collection, we should remember to strive for common data, and ultimately common knowledge. Data collection is a very powerful tool, and creating common awareness around the basics of the collection process is crucial if data is to have maximum impact in the humanitarian world.


“Getting to Common Awareness.” Matt Berg. Presentation given for T4D Capacity Building Workshop in Nairobi, Kenya. October 2013.