What are the disadvantages of mobile technology in data collection?

The potential benefits from mobile technology should be weighed against the disadvantages - afterall, a huge body of knowledge has been built up by field scientists and monitors using the highly effective tools of paper and pencils. Digital technology will not be right for all projects.

Smartphone from the community monitoring project
Smartphone from the Guyana monitoring project

Susceptibility to technical glitches

Although the most rugged smartphones have a lifespan of 2 – 3 years, this can be reduced by tropical forest conditions. Of 32 phones, only ten still functioned after three years in our Forest COMPASS community-based forest monitoring project in Guyana. The susceptibility of digital equipment to damage and other glitches can mean lengthy delays for repair, replacement or technical support, potentially leading to gaps in monitoring data. This reduces the overall robustness of the monitoring system (a key requirement for national forest monitoring systems under REDD+).

There can also be technical problems with connectivity: internet and mobile network access is not a requirement for using smartphones (as the system can be run on a local network or rely on USB memory sticks), but network connectivity is required to be able to share the data outside of this local system. Unreliable local connections can require monitors to spend a lot of time trying to send data, which can sap enthusiasm for the project.


Charging up the phones

Powering mobiles can require either long travel times to central charging points, or expensive phone charging equipment. This is a particular challenge where dense canopy means that solar power is not a viable option. However, innovative technologies to overcome this are being developed, for example a project in the dense forests of the Congo Basin charges phones using a pan charger that relies on cooking heat.


Greater reliance on external facilitators

The high level of expertise required to manage digital technology can reduce local autonomy and be a barrier to participation, due to the ongoing reliance on external facilitators, such as NGOs and researchers. This could be a particular consideration if local monitors are completely new to digital technology, but do have the skills to manage paper-based systems with ease.

Even where monitors are familiar with smartphones, they might not find data collection form applications straightforward, for example apps such as Open Data Kit often require XML basic coding as soon as any level of complexity is introduced.


Greater time investment required

Developing digital technology forms requires time and patience, with a lot of testing to remove bugs. This can make the process of designing indicators and questions that can be analysed in a useful way and used for decision-making even more time-consuming.


Challenging and time-consuming data analysis

The development of apps for easy data collection has outstripped the development of apps and programmes for equally accessible and easy analysis of this data. Data analysis is very time consuming and increases the reliance of communities on external organisations. This is also true for paper-based systems, but the ease of digital collection can mean a project rapidly gathers more data than it has capacity to handle. A key challenge for digital technology in community-based forest monitoring is the development of simple analytical tools that can support communities to analyse, visualise and interpret data.

For example, while software such as SMAP or Open Data Kit (ODK) Aggregate can be used for simple data analysis, for more tailored or robust statistical analysis the data needs to be exported to computer programmes such as MS Excel, QGIS or R Statistics. Furthermore, for complex data collection forms with multiple answers and ‘loop’ questions (the same set of questions for different data points e.g. repeated questions on size and productivity for multiple farm plots) the resulting dataset is challenging to analyse using these computer programmes. For example, using Open Data Kit Collect, each potential answer is represented by a column in MS Excel requiring advanced skills to manipulate and extract the data in a useful format. 


High up-front and ongoing costs

Although prices are rapidly falling, supplying a team of monitors with rugged smartphones with gorilla glass, good cameras, memory, and battery power is still a substantial cost. Additional equipment, such as chargers (including solar power or pan chargers); internet and mobile networks; and repairs can also eat into a project's budget.

Furthermore, the use of smartphones can necessitate not only high training costs at the start, but also high ongoing support costs. Even the smallest problems can be expensive to resolve where the closest repair shops are remote. And even if local capacity is built to manage the technology, this can be lost to turnover of staff and monitors.


Socio-cultural change and the potential for other uses of tech

It is important to consider the potential impact of introducing smartphones and internet access into a community. In many cases these can be used for purposes other than monitoring, which can change socio-cultural processes and community dynamics. This should be discussed with community leaders as a key part of project planning.

One option is to use software, such as Sapelli Launcher, which can replace the normal android operating system to exclude other functionality and/or specify what apps are allowed on the phone.

In the community-based forest monitoring project in Guyana, monitors were trusted to use the phones for monitoring only, and phone functionality was not disabled. The local project management team highlighted that it was a challenge to manage monitors’ personal use of the phones, which drained the batteries and used up memory. Nonetheless, in the project evaluation, 87% of Toshaos (community leaders) stated that the phones had had a positive impact on the community.


Gender and community segmentation

There is the potential for any new technology to create or reinforce segmentation within a community, between men and women, or the young and old, depending on who has access to the technology and has the skills to use it. With smartphones, users can not only use the phones for monitoring, but can have privileged access to communications and information from the wider world. Non-users may be excluded. With drones, issues of privacy can cause conflict, especially if there are perceptions that one subsection of the community is carrying out surveillance of the property and resource use of others.