As part of the research for my PhD thesis, I collected a household survey of 600 Palestinian refugee households from Nahr el Bared camp in Lebanon in 2012. My thesis looks at the consequences of returning home, and my case study is Nahr el Bared camp, a Palestinian refugee camp that witnessed a destructive war in 2007. All residents of the camp were evacuated and displaced to a nearby camp as the Lebanese military fought with Fatah el Islam. The camp was almost completely destroyed and required a large reconstruction effort, leaving around 80% of households to still be displaced 5 years after the war, at the time of my field work.
I have written a previous blog about how this data was collected, but I thought it might be useful to share my experience of using Open Data Kit (a set of tools used for mobile data collection) on tablet PCs in the field.
The main advantage of using tablet PCs was the fact that data was entered once only, as opposed to the case of using paper and pencil interviewing (PAPI), where responses are first recorded on paper and then entered in digital format into a computer. In the case of PAPI, entering the data twice increases the likelihood of data entry error, especially when written responses can be illegible or misinterpreted – even more so if the data is not entered by the same person who wrote the responses, as is usually the case. This also sped up the data collection process, skipping the data entry stage, which in the case of a 600 household survey was estimated to have taken up to two weeks.
Another benefit of data entered immediately onto the tablet was that we were only a simple step away from observing the data. At the end of a day of interviewing, the data was transferred from the tablet PCs to my laptop (through a USB cable) and then compiled into an excel sheet through ODK briefcase (this could have been done through a server if internet was available, but that would have been too expensive in Lebanon).
Once I had the excel file I could look for outliers among the variables. I also looked out for any logical inconsistencies, such as those concerning education levels and age, or employment status and age. At the end of each day I prepared a report of these inconsistencies and met with the teams early the next morning before setting out for the next day of data collection.
The questionnaire used for this household survey was quite complicated as the sequence and inclusion of questions depend on the response to a previous question. In this case the skip codes can be automatically included into the ODK form. Data collectors saved time as they did not have to carefully think about which question to answer next. In addition, mistakes where data collectors miss a question or answer the wrong question were avoided.
The tablets that we used had a short battery life and need to be recharged after three to four hours of interviewing. While we had set up two offices in Nahr el Bared camp and Beddawi camp for data collectors to recharge their tablets, they found that if electricity was available, respondents allowed them to charge their tablets while conducting the interview. In some settings where electricity is not readily available (or respondents are not as hospitable and cooperative), battery life can be problematic, and investing in long lasting batteries or extra batteries might be necessary. As I was taking the tablets back with me each day, I ended up charging all the tablets overnight as well. Lots of electricity sockets are a must if this is how you do it!
Data collectors were also worried that there was no back up to their interview other than the digital files on the tablets. A slip of the hand might delete a questionnaire, or the loss or theft of a tablet might mean the completed questionnaire would be lost forever. To avoid losing data like this, we had to transfer data to my laptop as soon as possible, and then back it up on Dropbox or a hard drive. Luckily no questionnaires were lost this time, but it might be worth having an internet connection so that forms can be sent to the server as soon as the interview is over.
A justifiable concern prior to fieldwork was that respondents, or potential respondents, might be intimidated by the electronic devices. While several respondents initially asked if they were being recorded, data collectors did not feel that respondents were intimidated. Interestingly, respondents were quite curious to know more about the devices and how they would be used in the interview. This curiosity served as an icebreaker in many interviews, and in others a starting point to explain the research project.
Unfortunately, being on a tight budget as a PhD student meant that I could not afford very good quality tablets, and I relied on 2nd hand tablets that had been used for data collection by my PhD supervisors in Maharashtra, India. After shipping the tablets from Mumbai to Beirut and uploading my form, I realised that the tablets did not display Arabic font! After a couple of days of worrying about this, I decided that we could use Latin characters transliterated from Arabic. This was not too much of a problem as most of the enumerators were used to using these characters on their mobiles or computers for sending messages, emails or chatting. In fact, one enumerator said she found it much easier.
The use of this open source technology was a huge (if not necessary) bonus on many levels, specifically in relieving the data collectors of the responsibility of following complicated skip codes and in aiding data validation. It was also interesting that the tablet PCs served as an icebreaker in this context, and I would love to know if this has been a similar experience for others.
Alia Aghajanian is a PhD student based within the Conflict and Violence research cluster at IDS.
A version of this post was first published on the Open Data Kit blog on January 6th 2015.