Field-Testing an Android-Based Survey Tool in Micronesia

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Danny from Inveneo partner iSolutions (left) and Mark from FSM Telecom take a FormHub survey using Android smartphones at the Rominum School in Chuuk State, Federated States of Micronesia. Photo: Andris Bjornson
Danny from Inveneo partner iSolutions (left) and Mark from FSM Telecom take a FormHub survey using Android smartphones at the Rominum School in Chuuk State, Federated States of Micronesia. Photo: Andris Bjornson

Collecting information in the field has never been an easy task. A combination of GPS units, clipboards and cameras makes the typical site survey a bulky, labor-intensive affair. This past week, however, saw Inveneo’s first field test of a simple solution. With a donation of Android-based phones from Google.org Andris Bjornson, Inveneo’s CTO, implemented a new workflow while on project in Micronesia.

The workflow is based around several different technologies working together. GPS-enabled camera phones can collect all of the data necessary, the Android platform makes the system easy – and affordable – to deploy anywhere in the world and FormHub and odkCollect are used to initialize, collect and manage the data. The web-based service FormHub sets up the surveys by turning properly formatted Excel spreadsheets into a database back-end that records and plots all of the data collected. The Android app odkCollect captures and uploads the data, and can be used with or without connectivity, uploading data the next time the surveyor has internet access.

Bjornson was extremely pleased with the performance of the system in the field, both in it’s capacity and it’s flexibility. The system proved extremely robust, collecting data and deploying dynamic surveys that respond to the answers given.

“The collection and form design experience is awesome. The fact that something I’d call intermediate to advanced was this easy to use was huge,” said Bjornson.

The workflow proved highly adaptable, allowing for small but important changes like adding a “which island” field (something that only applies in Chuuk’s unusual archipelago environment) and changing “town” to “village” to be made extremely quickly. Details like these are important when deploying a project, as small communications difficulties can have larger ramifications. The team decided on a way to name different versions as the form evolved and moved forward without a hitch.

“The system proved to be a great example of one of our core values: the fusion of local knowledge and technical expertise,” said Bjornson. “It’s important to listen and trust people with local knowledge instead of just telling people how to do things. The flexibility of this workflow let us listen and adapt instantly.”

Working with any new system undoubtedly brings challenges. Bjornson’s first challenge was that Micronesia is wet, really wet, with nearly 200 inches of rainfall each year. Most smartphones are not waterproof, so deploying the devices into the field was a major concern. Fortunately the local engineers were familiar with this and wrapping a plastic bag around the device worked perfectly. When properly fitted, camera, GPS and touchscreen capabilities were unaffected by the thin plastic.

The second challenge came down to bandwidth. Bjornson has extensive experience in low-bandwidth scenarios around the world including working in Haiti, Kenya and Nepal, and the bandwidth in Chuuk was the slowest he’d seen, due to the fact that the entire state’s internet connection comes through one satellite dish. The devices do not need connectivity to collect survey data in the field, but they do need a connection to upload the data they’ve collected. Bjornson was able to connect with the developers in the FormHub Google Group and get immediate feedback and a few potential solutions. After resizing photos and changing a few field types, a workaround was found.

“This first test was a total success,” said Bjornson. “The donated Android phones performed admirably in a harsh environment and the FormHub workflow worked like a charm. We’re looking forward to deploying more of them in the near term for our partners building networks in Haiti and other locations.”

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  1. Posted by Aaron Mason on April 3, 2013 in the categories: News
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