There’s consensus within the development community that digitising data provides huge opportunities to increase the effectiveness and impact of organisations that promote social change at a grassroots level. We, at Mobenzi, aim to empower this digital shift.

Setting the scene 

Many global success stories show how smart technology can support the work of frontline service providers and lead to better and cheaper services for the most vulnerable. And don’t we all dream of a simple one-stop-shop system designed to effectively collect, analyse, visualise, and share digital data in a single click?

However, despite evidence showing the effectiveness and relevance of digital systems to manage data, embarking on the digitisation journey can be intimidating for an organisation. Paper-based systems provide a false but reassuring sense of safety, and going digital requires an important shift in the culture of an organisation. In order to make the journey successful, organisations need to establish a clear road map to securing the involvement of all colleagues along the way. 

Paper-based systems provide a false but reassuring sense of safety, and going digital requires an important shift in the culture of an organisation.

The first important milestone of the journey consists of gathering information about the different products and digital tools on the market, in order to make an informed decision as to which ones are best suited to the project objectives and operational environment. Market research can be time-consuming and tricky, and even though there’s a wealth of information available on the web, the diversity of frontline situations makes it difficult to cater for all cases. Additionally, despite improvement in AI, a website still doesn’t answer questions like a human.

About the workshop

In order to better serve the goals of our clients, Mobenzi now hosts a series of workshops providing potential users with the opportunity to spend some face-to-face time with technical experts. Participants are encouraged to bring their questions and concerns to the table, and engage in a dialogue around existing solutions to see if and how Mobenzi’s products can support their work. 

Mobenzi now hosts a series of workshops providing potential users with the opportunity to spend some face-to-face time with technical experts.

The objective of the workshop is clear: in a limited amount of time (usually three hours), ensure participants leave with a detailed understanding of Mobenzi’s software-as-a-service platform, and have the tools and knowledge to compare its functionalities with other systems.

The first workshop of the series took place in Cape Town on 27 June 2019. The event drew a diverse crowd including representatives from renowned NGOs such as French Doctors, and several research institutes such as the South African Medical Research Council and the University of Cape Town. Various interactive sessions were organised to address the specific concerns of participants and answer their enquiries. These consisted of presentations, group discussions, system demonstrations, and a dedicated Q&A section

Main discussion points

What is the ideal balance between fancy functionalities and ease of use?

Participants generally  had a precise idea of what they needed in terms of functionality. It was great to witness their big digital plans for their organisations, and to identify their need for sophisticated systems that could roll out complex forms. 

However, not everyone has time to learn the commands of a complicated system – they want a data systems interface that’s intuitive and easy to use. We talked about Mobenzi’s recently-released form designer that enables staff with minimum IT knowledge to create powerful forms, including skip logic and validation rules. It also allows users to collect many different types of data – text, numbers, pictures, videos, signatures, and more. We talked about the improved mobile interface of the Mobenzi App, which integrated feedback from a decade of experience in its update. One feature upgrade provides simpler access to different menus of a form, which not only makes a fieldworkers’ job simpler, but also minimises the chance of errors being made.

How do we make sure the system remains safe and the data private?

Issues around data safety were important concerns for participants and rightly so – companies can’t afford to experience a corruption or leak of sensitive data. 

Companies can’t afford to experience a corruption or leak of sensitive data.

Data safety is a vast topic encompassing many different dimensions, which sometimes get mixed up. This was a good opportunity to bring clarity to the debate. We talked about the need to establish a clear data chain of custody, where modifications to a dataset can be carefully controlled and monitored with different access rights and a saved history. We talked about data encryption and server redundancy, and the need to have a robust hosting service that adheres to the highest international standards. This was also an opportunity to talk about handset control: Mobenzi’s ‘lock down’ option enables organisations to ensure their handsets are only used for work purposes and don’t get jammed by useless and unsafe applications.

Are free systems really free?

Many participants were considering using one of the ‘free’ systems available on the web and asked about the relevance of paying for such a service. Free systems can sometimes prove to be great solutions for specific cases, but are they really free? We talked about the many hidden costs linked to those systems; self-hosting data can be expensive if you  don’t want to compromise on security and reliability. We talked about the advantage of being able to rely on an external team of technicians able to solve issues and provide guidance in a timely manner, versus bringing the expertise in-house, which can be costly and difficult to build.

Beside collecting and analysing, what about communicating?

The ability to demonstrate and communicate impact to investors and other stakeholders through compelling visual reports is an important element of digital data systems. At Mobenzi, we know that drafting reports using paper-based systems or badly designed tools can be time consuming and disheartening. 

Drafting reports using paper-based systems or badly designed tools can be time consuming and disheartening.

Participants expressed a strong desire to be able to produce automated, near-real-time reports that can be customised for different kinds of stakeholders. We demonstrated how Mobenzi’s’ system can produce interactive charts, graphs, and maps, and how these could be configured to display appropriate levels of detail in order to unlock the true value of fieldwork. 

How does Mobenzi’s system interact with third party platforms?

Representatives from larger organisations intended to use Mobenzi’s tools in conjunction with other systems, and were keen to learn how different platforms could interact with Mobenzi’s system. We talked about how you can automatically import existing forms into Mobenzi’s account, provided that they conform to the XForms standard – the most widely used standard. We also covered the Mobenzi Application Programming Interface (API) that can be used to perform powerful server-side integration with third-party systems.

There were further discussion points – many related to specific challenges encountered by various organisations – which led to follow-up bilateral discussions. Overall, we found the format conducive to an honest and constructive dialogue. We believe the exercise was mutually beneficial, with potential clients gaining free advice on how to improve their digital game, and the Mobenzi team doing something we love: empowering non-technical people to join the data community,  and refining our understanding of the needs for data tools.

Join the next workshop

The next workshop is scheduled to take place in Kampala, Uganda on 31 July, 2019. If you’re keen to join, you can register here. Otherwise, contact us to find out when the next event is happening near you.