NDItech has written extensively on the challenges and innovations of election monitoring programs.. To understand and assess these election processes, partner groups rely on the transmission of rapid and reliable data from observers to data centers. Getting information to the center quickly can be a challenge as observers are often located in far-off rural areas perhaps days from the capitol. As a result, most observation exercises rely on capturing information via paper forms and later using phone calls and SMS-based communication systems to transfer information. If you need information faster than cars, bikes, or sometimes horses can carry it, there’s always mobile phones, but with call times to convey observer information averaging 5 minutes/person/report, you can imagine that it is hard to scale phone call updates to thousands of observers. Alternatively, observers can send text messages - that’s the most common way our partners do it - but it isn’t easy.
However, smartphone or tablet apps with the ability to enter data offline are a promising option for aggregating and disseminating information. Election forms can be filled out on a smartphone, saved, and transmitted to a central repository along with additional information like phone numbers and GIS coordinates when the phone reconnects to the internet. Mobile forms can be shared with the speed of text messages (when the phones get service) but the ease of use of paper forms.
Recently, NDI and partners had the opportunity to test, and later pilot, mobile applications for data collection during two international programs. Over this time, NDI worked with almost 80 international and domestic observers to monitor and assess electoral processes.
NDI had been playing with the idea of testing mobile forms for election observation for some time, and had run an initial pilot run approximately three years ago. With innovations in mobile applications. NDI was eager to evaluate new applications and platforms that could assist missions in their work.
In looking to test an applications, we explored several different options. The two we liked best were Formhub in conjunction with ODK Collect, and the FreeandFair app (which can be downloaded here but needs quite a bit of backend configuration), a neat application that integrates directly with Google forms. FreeandFair offered great options including offline functionality, geo-locational data capture, the option to send pictures with forms, and additional security features. We particularly liked that it integrated directly with Google forms, which we used to share data with partners. However, we ultimately decided that the application, still in Alpha phase, was not yet fully developed enough to meet our needs.
The other option, Formhub in conjunction with ODK Collect, has been the NGO standard for mobile form collection and is used by tons of organizations who need to gather data through surveys. The largest drawback to using ODK Collect is that it only operates on Android phones, and there are no good options for using Formhub on an IOS, besides a self-described “buggy” Android emulator that ODK offers. However, as we already had Android phones and tablets purchased, and were not expecting observers to use their own phones, the Android-only constraint didn’t pose a problem (side note: there are pay-for-use applications that work on an IOS system such as , but they can be pricey, and for us, offer less of the pertinent functionality that ODK Collect has).
Formhub, on the other hand, presented a different challenge: it was slow. Excruciatingly slow. In fact, it took us several days just to sign up for accounts and test out the platform as the site constantly rendered a “Formhub is currently over capacity” error. There was no way we could rely on the Formhub server to deliver immediate access to our data: a core prerequisite to any mobile data option we were considering.
However, with the marvels of cloud-based hosting, Formhub makes it easy for organizations to copy their site on a new server. Using an Amazon “machine image” (AMI) we were able to easily create our own instance of Formhub to serve only NDI programs and partners, solving our speed and access issues. A note on this: Formhub uses a plugin called Enketo to host web-based forms, and while Formhub is free in all services while using the Formhub server, if you deploy your own instance, in order to use the Enketo plug in you have to a pay a modicum of money each month, ranging from 20- 50 dollars, depending on your needs. While we were using ODK Collect, and did not need the web-based form option, for future missions we will likely be making the investment.
Once we had our instance up and running, we were able to create the forms and upload them into the site. Formhub relies on technology that parses CSV files to convert your data into an online form. Questions need to be uploaded into a CSV and some simple XML-based language is used to modify how your form and questions operate, look, and respond. Questions can be categorized into groups, be flagged as “required”, and data validation constraints can be input directly into the CSV file. By default, questions in ODK collect render one-by-one, so that the questions appear large on the screen and compel the user to fill out the form in linear, beginning-to-end, sequence. However, for us, we needed observers to be able to scroll through questions easily, and were less concerned about synchronous question placement, so we adjusted the appearance settings to make questions searchable and enabled an option for full page forms. Another cool option that Formhub offers is that individual questions or groups of questions can be made dependent upon answers given in previous parts of the survey, basically making your entire experience customizable.
With our own server up and running, forms generated, and smartphones in the field prepped, we were ready to dive in. For our initial test, we trained staff members, via Google hangouts, who then trained testers in the field. The observers who tested the program were a small subset of observers NDI was working with. In our initial trial, only 5 observers with a range of technical comfort, in conjunction with the Field Director, were able to test the application.
The results of the initial test, while limited in scope, demonstrated that smartphone based options for observers and observation missions provide an added value, but not without challenges of their own. Participants offered feedback on the app’s functionality, salience, and ease of use for their mission and compared the app to other methods they had used before such as paper forms and Google forms.
Overall, participants expressed that ODK Collect offered significant improvements for information sharing. The app was fast and intuitive, and offered exciting options for sharing information such as the ability to send a photo along with a report. However, not all news was good. Participants felt hesitant to use their phone when media was present, and generally felt that being on their phone could be perceived as being negligent in their work, perhaps catching up on Farmville. We will also need to continue to iterate on making questions more scannable, as participants felt that, had they not been intimately familiar with the questions on each form, it would have been challenging to move easily between questions. Finally, mobile forms do not offer a good options for collecting narrative information: It is simply too hard to type long paragraphs on a smartphone, and as a result commentary-based surveys are, for now, better left for the PC or pen.
We decided to iterate upon this initial test to pilot out the application with Samsung tablets for the 3 IOM’s in Tunisia. We tweaked our approached, improved trainings, and had an incredible successful trial. Now, tablets for data collection may be a new standard for international election monitoring by NDI.