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November 21, 2011-Technology, Grantee News

Guest post: Putting peace on the map

How KoBoToolbox.org and old-fashioned leg work helped consult communities in Liberia

Guest post by Patrick Vinck, a research scientist at the Harvard School of Public Health and associate faculty with the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI). Before joining HHI in 2011, he directed and co-founded the Initiative for Vulnerable Populations at UC Berkeley’s Human Rights Center, a Humanity United grantee. Patrick also-cofounded KoBo, a digital data collection project to advance human rights research.

Between November and December 2010, a team of 50 interviewers traveled by car, boat and foot to the most remote places of Liberia to consult the population about peace, security, and reconstruction. The nationwide survey was the first of its kind at that scale.

In their hands, the interviewers held the one device that would help them record results from the total of 4,501 interviews: a smartphone. Every day, we would sync the phones to a local computer and start looking at results, examining preliminary findings as they were being collected. Within months of the survey, we developed a new way to map results without expensive software—KoBoMap, a low-bandwidth interactive mapping program—and presented the survey results in Liberia.

While the digital data collection tools were new to the interviewers, they were not to our research team: we have developed and used handheld digital data collection projects since 2005, after realizing that we needed to be able to provide results faster and more accurately, while also increasing the safety of all those involved in the research, including the respondents. Digital data collection on handheld devices achieved just that. Since then, our team, now based at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, interviewed more than 25,000 individuals in places like the Central African Republic, northern Uganda, or Liberia, using smartphones. Over time, we moved toward the Android platform, building on the work of open-source groups like Javarosa and ODK. We also developed a user-friendly formbuilder with some unique features to facilitate complex navigation within forms, and also developed the interactive mapping solution, relying on a simple online spreadsheet.

The use of these tools was instrumental to the success of many of our projects. To share them—and the many lessons learned—we created KoBoToolbox. Over the years, we have learned to collect high-quality data in some of the most challenging environments, overcoming the lack of power supply and connectivity, while working mainly in conflict and post-conflict situations. These lessons, we hope, will not only help others tackle the move from paper-based to digital data collection but improve the process and quality of research in complex environment.

P.S. In case you wonder–KoBo means transfer in Acholi, where we first used handheld digital data collection. The Liberia project was supported by Humanity United. KoBoToolbox’s main support is provided by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and Humanity United.