“Health. Access. Rights” – the slogan of multinational non-profit, Ipas, which works to improve access to safe abortion and contraception so that every woman and girl can determine her own future. One of its strategic priorities is to focus on targeted research to understand more about women’s needs and wants regarding reproductive health and how they make decisions about contraception and abortion.

“We believe in a world where every woman and girl can determine her own future.”

Ipas

No stranger to technology (the recent development of an app by Ipas Mexico has made it easier for healthcare providers and abortion service providers to access information about safe abortion), Ipas South Africa has been piloting a mobile application to improve its data collection process, the very foundation of its targeted research projects.

Going digital

According to Justine van Rooyen, Research Monitoring and Evaluation Adviser at Ipas South Africa, the organisation (globally) typically collects data via paper logbooks and forms. However, with a new office boasting 60 sites and the anticipation of more to come, Ipas South Africa is exploring the rollout of mobile survey tools to improve data collection, data accuracy and reporting.

“Our hypothesis was that mobile digital survey tools would increase speed and accuracy of data collection and reduce associated costs in the long-term,” said van Rooyen. “So, we decided to test this through a pilot project.”

Figure 1: Mobenzi’s mobile data collection application used in the Ipas pilot

Ipas South Africa chose to use Mobenzi, a mobile data collection tool developed and supported in South Africa, to run the pilot. The application is useable on both mobile tablets and phones, has offline capabilities, and allows the user to gain a quick overview of data over varying periods of time, using the desktop dashboard.

Mobenzi’s app offers a number of potential benefits that address pain points in organisations such as van Rooyen’s:

  • Survey timing
  • Data accuracy
  • Accountability and participation
  • Data security and privacy
  • Cost reduction

Methodology

The pilot project used two Intervention Sites and two Control Sites, with data collection at these sites being measured on the following five criteria:

  1. Time spent from data capture to third-party tool import (for analytics)
  2. Margin of error between data collection tool and analytics tool
  3. Cost (printing logbooks, consultants vs tablets, SaaS subscription)
  4. Ease of use
  5. Usefulness of SaaS dashboard

1) Time spent

“The results were immediately self-evident,” said van Rooyen. “One of the examples illustrated (below), shows that the time taken for the data capture process was significantly reduced using a digital methodology, rather than the traditional paper-based process.”

Figure 2: Duration of data capture process

“Digital impacts survey timing in a number of ways,” said van Rooyen. “Firstly, introducing digital processes reduces the time required to conduct an interview. Secondly, and possibly most importantly, using digital devices reduces the time required for Ipas, partners and communities to obtain the data, due to the removal of the conventional data-entry process. Finally, using digital surveys also improves the quality of the data collected, which means that the time required for data cleaning is also reduced.”


Digital reduces the time required to conduct an interview…obtain the data…(and) the time required for cleaning the data.

2) Margin of error

“The issue of data quality was a telling one,” added van Rooyen.

“We found that returned logbooks contained numerous blank spaces, or missing data (see Figure 3 below), which was not an issue with the digital solution as Mobenzi’s survey forms contain skip logic, whereby the fieldworker cannot move on in the questionnaire without entering a valid response.”

Figure 3: Data quality – returned logbooks contained numerous blank spaces, or missing data.

This does have other timing implications too. For example, before being able to conduct statistical analysis, data needs to be cleaned and variables properly labelled, which can be a lengthy process. But when data is collected digitally, the structure and control imposed by the software means data is ready for variable construction in a significantly shorter period.

3) Costs

The table below compares the cost of digital surveys with paper surveys under some relevant budget components.

Table 1: What was Ipas’ investment? (Note: Recurring costs*)

As shown, the cost of the software is minimal compared with the typical cost of data entry. Even when including the procurement cost of the hardware, the pilot project revealed an 82,6% cost difference between the digital and paper-based approaches. If the cost of hardware procurement is amortised over the typical lifespan of these mobile devices, even more substantial savings can be achieved.

4) Ease of use and (5) usefulness of the SaaS dashboard

Ipas posed several questions to its service provider tasked with the collection of data, and the feedback demonstrates the unequivocal acceptance of the organisational benefits of going digital. “The overwhelming majority of responses were positive,” said van Rooyen. “The digital process proved to be quicker, easier and more cost-effective for us.”

Feedback results:

The challenges of going digital

“Whilst the pilot project ultimately confirmed our initial hypothesis – that mobile digital survey tools would increase speed and accuracy of data collection and reduce associated costs in the long-term – it was not without its challenges,” said van Rooyen.

“For example, we found issues with service providers, ranging from a duplication of work/effort due to them having multiple data collection systems in place, to an initial ‘discomfort’ with tech (digital divide). For Ipas, the issues of securing permissions for digital data capture, finding suitably tech-proficient service providers, setting up seamless transfer of data from Mobenzi to third-party analytics tools, troubleshooting issues (glitches, which require at least a monthly check-in) are all part and parcel of the digital journey,” she said.

With the challenges acknowledged, a 50% reduction in time and 80% reduction in costs is still a compelling argument in support of embarking on the digital journey.