Governments need good data to make decisions and improve services and facilities. Many face challenges about how best to improve the performance of their schools and health facilities, and how best to ensure that services to citizens are delivered effectively in good facilities.
Often the data systems they rely on to make these decisions are slow and expensive. Decision makers often lack good information about conditions on the front line, particularly in large systems with thousands of facilities spread across a large area. What if data could be collected in days or weeks, with accurate, real time information available for decision making?
Mobile technology presents new opportunities for monitoring and data collection which are faster and cheaper than traditional methods. Apps benefit from high scalability - developing and implementing them takes a fraction of the time compared to traditional methods. This technology is already being used by some governments to make better decisions.
For instance we built mobile apps to monitor the quality and construction of school infrastructure in South America. Parents, teachers, school administrators and other stakeholders submit pictures and information about the state of school infrastructure.
These submissions are timestamped and geotagged to create a realtime picture on the state of infrastructure. Simple dashboards present the data in meaningful ways to officials who use the information to inform decision making. In South Asia, we've worked to equip government officials with mobile apps to submit real time data on the state of their schools and facilities. The data is used to create accurate live maps of performance and challenges across the system.
This technology has far reaching potential.
Mobile apps can collect data faster. Traditional methods require governments to pay a team of people to carry out specific tasks such as collecting, entering, analysing and presenting data. Mobile app software integrates these tasks, saving time and money. Entries are quickly verified and analysed by software before being presented on dashboards. In our experience data on the entire system can be available in days or weeks, compared to months or years by traditional methods.
One benefit of faster collection is significantly faster feedback loops, helping managers to react quickly. Officials can use this information to identify issues in the system and quickly respond. Additionally, most issues with data collection methods can be quickly resolved remotely with a software update.
Our work learns from the experience of a wide range of other countries. In Mali, mobile technologies have been used to improve the speed of data collection monitoring malaria trends. A USAID study found this technology led to “significant improvements in the timeliness and completion of routine data monthly reports when compared with reporting systems that rely on the transfer of paper to the district”.
Driven by the low cost of scaling, mobile apps are cheaper than traditional methods of monitoring and collecting data. Although mobile apps require an initial investment to develop the software, once developed they are relatively cheap to roll out and manage.
For example in South America, the education infrastructure monitoring app crowdsourced data collection meaning parents, teachers, school administrators and other stakeholders submitted entries on the state of infrastructure.
“What once required a costly team of people could now be carried out cheaply by people using phones they already carry in their pockets.”
In Liberia, tablets were used to monitor maternal and child health outcomes. The team found that implementing mobile technology for the purpose of data collection “was relatively inexpensive and easy”.
Insights from consumer mobile application development can be applied when building mobile applications for the public-sector. The most effective mobile apps thoughtfully design the user interface to only collect useful information. For instance, yes-no and scaled questions generally provide far more useful information than open ended questions.
For example, “on a scale of 1-5, what is the condition of the paintwork?”, will typically result in far more useful information than “what is the condition of the paintwork?”.
Users can be asked to submit photos, so that central teams can check and calibrate responses.
Additionally, mobile apps can be easily targeted to specific stakeholders to extract the most useful data from diverse sets of stakeholders. For example in South America, school administrators were able to provide more exhaustive information than students and parents as they were trained to report on specific issues.
Collected data must be valid to effectively inform decision making. Mobile apps require only single data entry and benefit from in-built validation processes, such as:
In rare cases when required, physical checks can be used to ensure submissions are accurate.
Joseph Marsico Joseph is the Head of Technology at Acasus. For 15 years Joseph has worked with startups, tech companies, and public sector clients to build innovative mobile and web applications. Before joining Acasus he worked in Latin America, Europe, and across the Middle East. Today he leads Acasus’ software engineering teams focused on making dramatic improvements in public health and education. Will Anderson is the lead researcher for public-sector projects at Acasus.