Introduction

The presence of smartphones, tablets, and applications (or apps) is widespread, and in conjunction with electronic forms, prove to be an excellent combination to strengthen programs and services in the community organization context. Given the vast geographical and cultural nuances in the San Joaquin Valley, these smart technologies greatly enhance how organizations capture data about their work in the community. With such data, organizations effectively articulate their impact to donors, funders, and community stakeholders.

Emerging practices suggest that data collection errors are avoided with smartphone data entry. Shuyi Zhang and colleagues tracked data entry by smartphone and paper-pen approaches in rural China and confirm the usefulness and effectiveness of smartphones for collecting data. In part, this success is due to the ability of smart technologies to guide how data is entered by staff. This means that smart technologies allow organizations to define the type of data to record and the format in which it must be entered. Unlike paper-pen forms, smart technologies allow granular controls over the data entry, data synthesis, and interpretation.

We argue that low-level smart technologies make high-functioning strategies for community organizations.

Collecting and Reporting Data

by staff

Below are four strategies that prove practical and appropriate for staff who collect data.

1   Staff can use smartphones to collect data in terms of copying documents, recording interviews, and making digital observations. For example, staff can snap pictures/copies of documents. We have worked in programming where copies of birth certificates and other personal documents are needed by the organization; when in the community, staff who meet with service consumers can snap shots of such documents (to later be downloaded to computers for appropriate storage). Additionally, staff can conduct interviews with audio recording apps and even video record observations. 

2   When there is an ongoing need to produce short, preliminary case notes, use smartphones or tablets to jot-down digital notes for later download to case file management system. With a pre-established template, staff can uniformly make case notes for streamlined recording and later analysis.

3   Digital forms and apps structure how data is collected on smartphones and tablets, giving a predetermined structure to how staff make notes or input data. For example, Google forms allows organizations to design a structure for staff to input data points. Upon inputting the data into the form, the data is automated and feeds into an accompanying spreadsheet.  

4   Program participants can respond to survey questions through text message. Studies such as that by Schober and colleagues focus on responses from people to texted survey questions. Community organizations can effectively use text messaging for administering and collecting survey data. 

Collecting and Reporting Data

by program participants

From studying smartphone use by demographics, researchers coined the term “smartphone-dependent” to describe persons who use smartphones to access internet outside of the home for multiple purposes, tending to also be from low-income households. Community organizations can confidently partner with program participants via participants’ own smartphone.

1   Digital forms and apps can structure how data is reported by program participants, giving a predetermined structure to how data is inputted by participants themselves. For example, Google forms allows organizations to design a structure for staff to input data points. Likewise program participants insert their data into a Google form and the data is automated and feeds into an accompanying spreadsheet.  

2   Program participants can use smartphones to report data through apps, reporting data in a structured way on predetermined topics/issues. For example, Kinsey Reporter which provides anonymity and is used to study human behavior (description of how the app work from Scientific America) and such apps can be built in a cost-effective way. This approach to an apps allows program participants to report info about themselves.

3   Another app example is Project Noah which provides participants with the opportunity to record and submit observed creatures (plants/animals) as well as upload pictures. This approach allows program participants to report about their environment. 

4   Program participants can use smartphones to report data through text messages (e.g. report temperatures, pollution, or crimes). Universities and cities have started using TipSoft allowing citizens to report information or crimes. This same sort of software can be used to report program specific data. 

These strategies for data collection work for urban and rural community organizations across a range of organizational specializations. We would love to hear from you about how you are using smart technologies to collect data.  

Disclaimer: We encourage all practitioners to take precautions when collecting data with smart technologies including the following to ensure data privacy:
  1. The smart technologies should be the property of the organization, not the personal technologies of staff members.
  2. Use tracking software (iOS and Android) on the smartphones and tablets in case lost while in the field and use numerical code locks on smartphones and tablets to safeguard who can view data such as photos of identifying documents.
  3. Utilize confidentiality and consent apps or digital forms that participants mark indicating that the data was collected with all best interests and best practices.
  4. Keep data anonymity wherever possible with a code legend of factual names/identities and pseudonyms or numerical codes for data collected through electronic forms and text messaging.