Mobile Apps for Data Collection Update: FrontlineSMS Forms and Nokia Data Gathering

Posted by KatrinVerclas on Mar 10, 2009

We recently compared the many mobile apps out there for using mobile phones for data collection and surveying - one of the promising areas in which social researchers and NGOs are using mobiles.

Here is an updated version of our overview that includes the newly-released FrontlineSMS forms client, and Nokia Data Gathering, a mobile data collection tool designed for social researchers and NGOs. Here is the summary:


The FrontlineSMS forms client was released last week. It adds basic data collection functionality to the SMS messaging tool. The forms client is a Java application, with all data transfer done via SMS.  The workflow for FrontlineSMS forms is as follows:

  • Download and install the forms client on almost any Java phone. For phones with Internet access, the application can be downloaded directly on the phone. Alternatively, it can be download the forms client to a PC and send it to the phone using bluetooth or USB data cable.
  • Create your forms in FrontlineSMS, using the drag-and-drop forms editor
  • Send the forms( via SMS) to your data collection phones, and load them into the client
  • Data collectors fill in forms, which are sent as an SMS to the FrontlineSMS server number
  • You can now view the data in FrontlineSMS, or export to a text file (comma separated values - readable by Excel) for further analysis

Although we haven't yet tried out the full system (downloads are dependent on Ken bank's approval and can be slow - at least for us), there are a number of nice features in the new client.

There's a form designer included, as well as an Excel export for received forms. The mobile client will run on even very low-end Java phones (we tested on the Nokia 1680, which struggles to run many other Java applications). Integration with an established system may also smooth the learning curve for organisations already using FrontlineSMS for bulk messaging.

Use it: This is the simplest data collection system we've seen, and the client is the least resource-intensive. While it doesn't allow you to change the data collection workflow or add new data types, it has the basics, and it's a full end-to-end system.

Don't use it: Because the forms client isn't open source (the rest of FrontlineSMS is now), you won't be able to customise or build on it. You're also limited to SMS for data transfer at this stage, which can be expensive.

Nokia Data Gathering:

Nokia Data Gathering is another solid new-ish release in the mobile data collection space. Like FrontlineSMS, it aims to be an end-to-end system, comprising a form designer, a mobile client written in Java, a data server and data export. The system targets two specific higher-end Nokia smartphones (the E61 and E71). It should run on other Java phones too, but hasn't been tested for them.

Without getting too involved in the technical detail of the system (if you're interested, there's some detail on technologies used and the rationale for choosing them on the Nokia Data Gathering site), it's clear that it has been thoughtfully designed, with consideration given to scalability and future directions for development. Notable features include GPS co-ordinates for form submissions (using the E71's onboard GPS), transparent switching between GPRS and SMS for data transmission depending on availability, and the Connector API, which eases integration into existing databases.

Use it: If you're exploring options for a medium-to-large data collection programme, and are already planning to purchase handsets for your data capturers, Nokia Data Gathering is worth looking into. It isn't open source or available as a packaged download, but we're told that it's available at no cost to non-profits and developing world governments. Make contact through the Nokia Data Gathering site.

Don't use it: If you are targeting low-end handsets, or are not planning to buy new handsets for your data capturers, this probably isn't the system for you. Also, while it's scalable, you'll need some IT expertise to install the server-side components.

Other Resources:

Photo Courtesy FrontlineSMS/Kiwanja

Why don't you consider

Why don't you consider building the Apps that will target the low-end handset owners in order to make the application more useful. Am imagining a case of a small organization that doesn't have enough cash to purchas the smart phones for its data gathering activities or even students who are cash trapped yet they'd want to use the form to gather data for their research work; Having a low-end that runs on a number of platforms, not just java supported, could be more useful.

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