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New Project: Multi-Channel Data Collection Tool

Max Froumentin · December 8, 2010

The Web Foundation, with funding from the Hewlett Foundation, is starting a new and exciting initiative on data collection.  And we need your help.

Collecting data is a crucial element within a wide range of projects, including but not limited to human rights monitoring, epidemiology, population censuses, opinion polls, economic studies, etc. No project can be declared successful if it lacks reliable statistics to demonstrate its impact. Common statistics include field measurements (eg, water toxicity), event reports and results of votes or polls.

Before the advent of modern information technology, data collection was carried out through pen-and-paper reporting. Gathering reports was slow and analyzing the data was painstaking. Now, surveyors use PDAs, laptops and mobile phones, to collect and reliably transmit data via SMS, mobile data links or voice.

What problems are we seeking to address in our new project?  Digital data collection suffers from a multiplicity of tools and communication channels. While pens and paper could be used for just about any survey, new tools tend to have a scope limited to the particular effort for which they were designed. PDAs may not be able to transmit data and may need to be physically connected. SMS services are not accessible to illiterate people. Specific software may not run on the phones available. Ensuing limitations lead to less reliable statistics and risk undermining projects. Survey planner often must revert to multiple collection tools, leading to the unpleasant task of having to collate data from various sources.  Furthermore, no one knows how much money is invested by foundations, governments, NGOs and corporations to re-invent the survey tool wheel.

Something can be done about it. Modern Web technologies can be used as the foundation of a new type of data collection tools — a tool that can take advantage of the Web’s multimodal, multilingual and accessibility features. A single, properly designed, Web  tool could support multiple input methods (voice, SMS, mobile websites, offline applications, etc.), as well as Web-based data management, analysis and dissemination capabilities.

The Foundation is starting work which will lead to the design of such a tool. We will start by forming a community of data-collection experts, survey-software implementers, as well as users themselves. With their help we will compile information on existing data collection software applications, and their strengths and weaknesses. We will draw from this exercise a set of requirements for a better multi-channel data collection framework, which we hope will lead to the implementation of an open source application fulfilling those requirements.

By virtue of being free and open source, of being maintained by a community of experts and of taking advantage of the universality of Web technology, we  expect the resulting application to become the leading data collection tool and to greatly improve the quality, efficiency and cost-effectiveness of gathering statistics, hopefully leading to many successful studies and projects.

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