There are numerous potential benefits of mobile technology in data collection, as outlined below. However, the value of any of these benefits to an project will depend on that initiative's particular goal and scope. For example, where the goal is to enable communities to alert authorities to illegal activities, mobile data collection can enable data to be shared fast enough for a successful, timely response. If a project engages a small number of monitors in frequent monitoring over many years, the benefits are more likely to exceed the costs of supplying each person with a phone and training.
It is also important to note that realising these benefits also depend on other conditions for a successful monitoring system, such as a data-sharing protocol.
Small size; high versatility
Pocket-sized smartphones can capture a wide range of data, including audio, video, camera, GPS and text, making them incredibly versatile and removing the need to carry lots of expensive, specialist equipment. They can also replace bulky training manuals with something that is not only more compact, but can be more engaging, showing video tutorials.
Smartphones can also help communities share additional information to monitoring data, for example to communicate the need for urgent medical help.
A new way for illiterate people to participate
Pictorial icon-based data collection apps, such as those developed by the Sapelli Platform and CyberTracker, can enable people to participate who have no previous experience with digital technology – even those who struggle to read or write. Icons can either be developed with a community or selected from an existing databank. These can be literal (e.g. a specific fruit), categorical (a fruit picture meaning any type of fruit) or metaphorical (e.g. a syringe indicating any type of medicinal plant).
To support illiterate users to collect data, the Sapelli Platform has also developed a Launcher App that replaces the standard smartphone user interface with a text-free user interface. It is also possible to record and add audio, so that a voice explains each icon when it is pressed.
Fewer data errors
Using paper brings the risk that errors will be made when data is transcribed into a digital format, ready for analysis. Smartphones can reduce the number of these data transcription errors. Monitors can correct any errors without creating a messy paper form that can be hard to interpret.
Digital data collection forms can also incorporate data auditing features that improve the quality of the data and help standardisation. Examples of data auditing are mandatory fields, or more sophisticated features such as rejecting or querying values outside a defined range. Instant data visualisation through mobile-based applications can also help quickly identify any issues or problems with the data before analysis, and enables quick feedback for the monitors.
Reduced time lag between collecting data and analysing and sharing it
As well as reducing errors, avoiding the need for data transcription helps reduce the time needed to transfer data from the field for data analysis. Transferring data over a network means analysis can start almost immediately after data collection.
The reduced time lag in bringing data from the field to the computer can increase the speed of sharing data with external actors. This is particularly useful for projects such as REDD+, where payments are performance based. Digital data collection forms can be easier to migrate data to external data sets, and integrate these, for example into national forest inventories.
Providing real-time data to local managers of resources or protected areas means that they have the information they need to take action in response to changes in natural resources, as is the case for arapaima fishers in Brazil. Sharing data with communities and local monitors helps keep momentum and interest in the project, and enables individuals to take their own informed decisions about resource use.
Facilitate more efficient two-way communication
Beyond data sharing, mobile technology can enable a more effective two-way flow of digital communication between forest communities and external actors, such as the government. Communities can use smartphones to access information on natural resource management, for example real-time deforestation alerts. They can ask for third-party verification of data, such as by experts in biodiversity surveys. Smartphones can also speed up the provision of information more generally, such as extreme event warnings, which may be slow to reach remote forest communities.
Engage younger people and other phone users
Experience shows that technology can engage younger people in community-based monitoring. This brings together the young (who are interested in technology, and may have the knowhow) and old (who often have expert knowledge of the community’s natural resource base).
Any project that uses phones (instead of specialised monitoring devices), has the potential to engage other people with phones, enabling them all to become a monitor or a ‘citizen scientist’.