Lessons Learned paper on Mobile Data Collection: the Do's & Dont's in MDC!

21 May 2021

This blog post was originally published on the CartoBlog in 2019 (more information below) by CartONG. It was transferred to the IM Resource Portal in May 2021.

CartONG and Terre des hommes (Tdh) are pleased to release a Lesson Learned paper on Mobile Data Collection (available for consultation here). Written by CartONG, this paper reflects on five years of experience gained by Terre des hommes implementing MDC projects in its countries of operation worldwide.

Its principle aim is to help field operations make the best use of MDC in their programs by summarizing the key lessons learned throughout these 5 years of MDC roll-out. It builds both on the institutional knowledge acquired over the years as well as on the experiences shared by three delegations (Iraq, Mali and Nepal) – deliberately different in terms of size, volume of operations, and types of interventions.

This Lessons Learned paper also summarizes the path taken by the organization to scale up MDC over the years and the uses to which MDC is put, both by Tdh and by the wider humanitarian community. Lastly, it also details both Tdh and CartONG’s vision for MDC in the coming years.

Although we encourage you to read the full 10 lessons learned in the paper directly, here is a summarized version of the main findings.

Focus on “analysis” from the beginning!

Why? Building your analysis into your data collection tool helps you become more efficient before, during and after the data collection. In the first place, it encourages the right level of reflection before the data collection actually begins to ensure that all you will need (and only what you need!) in your analysis is indeed included. It then makes it possible to check your results regularly while the data collection is still ongoing without making the process too long and dreary and – finally – it makes your analysis quicker and more efficient after the data collection is over.

> See lesson 2: MDC is an enabler to improve the way you analyze your data

Only use MDC when you need it!

Why? MDC can sometimes be a victim of its success and used to answer all data collections needs, even when it is not appropriate or relevant. However, its usage should be dependent on the data collection needs and the M&E plan of a project and used concurrently with the qualitative methods that make sense (observation, key informant interviews, focus group discussions, etc.). These qualitative methods – often under-used as they require more reflection or are less enticing in the approach – often provide information of great value to many of the questions asked in the context of a humanitarian project.

> See lesson 4: Integrate the MDC implementation in the M&E approach to make it more impactful

Use MDC to improve the monitoring of your teams!

Why? When you have an internet connection that permits it, MDC enables you to have a better understanding of what is going on in the field. It can support you in checking up on the content of the data collected regularly to see if anything has been misunderstood or isn’t being done as it should so as to make timely feedback before this impacts data quality. It is particularly useful to monitor data collections that occur in remote areas or in several locations at once.

> See lesson 6: MDC makes possible more efficient team supervision

Remember that capacity building is not a one-shot initiative!

Why? Initial capacity and knowledge building should be considered as an exercise to be maintained over time through: i) refresher trainings, workshops or webinars that can also serve as community building and horizontal transfer of skills, ii) accessible support (one-to-one support, hotlines, etc.) and iii) material made available (policies, documentation, global tools, feedback from other experiences, etc.). This helps to ensure that the approach is endorsed over time throughout the organization.

> See lesson 8: MDC is not a one-shot capacity building exercise

Invest time to carefully plan all of the components of your MDC strategy!

Why? Even though MDC is often seen as a game-changer in projects, deploying an institutional strategy takes a lot of energy and resources to ensure it will permeate the different geographies and profiles of the organization. This should therefore be carefully planned and thought through, as forgetting or underestimating one component – such as change management or communication – can compromise the whole approach.

> See lesson 10: Remember that MDC is a long-term organizational approach and investment

Don’t use MDC if you do not have the time to do it properly!

Why? We have seen too many data collections where forms have not been conceived properly, the paper form being “simply” put on mobile with no reaping of the benefits of MDC. As a consequence, enumerators might be blocked from doing their work in the field, if the GPS point is mandatory but the phone has a technical issue making it impossible to capture it for example, or a question does not have a comprehensive list of all possible answers – and this just should not happen!

> See lesson 1: Stick to paper if you are not able to allocate sufficient time to plan your MDC.

Don’t overcomplicate things in terms of tools if you want to be sustainable!

Why? Consider the time for capacity building of your teams and the turnover rate of your field operations before choosing to deploy a very advanced statistical or mapping tool. It may seem that these sophisticated solutions perfectly answer your need at a given moment but they are often not maintainable over time – due to its financial or long-term knowledge-building cost. Same goes for your form conception: aim for “good enough” rather than “perfection”: above all, aim to ensure that the form is useful, without being overloaded with constraints and tweaks that a non tech-savvy form author might not be in a capacity to understand.

> See lesson 3: “Easier is better” when it comes to analysis tools

Don’t forget to assign roles & responsibilities!

Why? Defining roles and responsibilities can be seen as the cornerstone of any new process that requires change management, and this is most certainly the case when one wants an institutional MDC approach. MDC should not only require the involvement of the Information Management or M&E teams but should be done with a strong commitment of all program teams. This will help support a higher-quality data collection by ensuring a proper ownership of the process by the program teams. It will also optimize the technical skills needed by each team, encouraging program teams to use MDC for other purposes than M&E, such as the collection of data for the daily running of an activity – an often underused application of MDC.

> See lesson 5: Ensure roles and responsibilities between M&E teams and Program Managers are clearly spelled out

Don’t see data protection as just a constraint!

Why? As a humanitarian organization that seeks to support vulnerable populations, protection is and always should be a key principle. A such, “doing no digital harm” should be part of the answer to a crisis and not – as is often the case – seen only as a problem to solve. Each humanitarian organization should therefore see its implementation as an opportunity to rethink the data collection approach, as it impacts many different topics such as the legal basis for the data collection of multimedia (such as photos, recordings or GPS locations), or the data security and retention of data stored on online platforms. Such efforts will support the spreading of a responsible data culture.

> See lesson 7: Why data protection should not be the fifth wheel of the wagon

Don’t reinvent the wheel!

Why? Capitalizing on past experiences is simply the best way to improve future practices. By reminding field operations of what worked or didn’t work in other projects, they avoid making the same mistakes over and over again.

> See lesson 9: Why improving the capitalization around MDC experiences is key for any organization

About the CartoBlog

What is it?

The CartoBlog was the blog of CartONG up prior to this portal. It was originally launched in 2012 and featured a wide range of practical and guidance resources for aid practitioners covering the full range of Information Management topics, with a strong focus on Mapping and Geographic Information Systems as well as Mobile Data Collection. It will be decommissioned in early 2022. The vast majority of its content has been transferred to the IM Resource Portal.