Monitoring goes mobile: how Camfed is revolutionising data collection in rural Africa

Posted May 31, 2012 in Ghana, Press Coverage

Camfed tracks every dollar and pound it spends on girls’ education in Africa to make sure the girls and young women it supports are getting the full benefit of money from donors.

It’s essential work, but it’s also time-consuming: since 1993 Camfed has supported more than 60,000 girls and young women through school and provided training to thousands more across five countries in Africa. But now Camfed is going paperless in a move that will free up resources to help many more girls access education – by using mobile phones to gather data.

Until this year, volunteers from the rural districts in which Camfed works used paper forms to collect detailed data from schools about the girls being supported. This included information on everything from school performance and attendance to whether a girl had received shoes or a uniform. These hard copy reports would then be sent to the Camfed national office in each country and they in turn entered the data into a computer database . Though this thoroughness enabled Camfed to be fully transparent and accountable for every girl it supports, the process was slow, costly and subject to human error, and as Camfed grew, paper-based data collection became less and less viable.

Simple new technology is changing all that. Thanks to customised software, Camfed volunteers can now enter data about students’ progress onto mobile phones – a now almost ubiquitous technology in Africa – and upload. The data is then transferred to a cloud-based platform to be safely stored and sorted. Though using mobile phones to collect data in this way is becoming increasingly common in healthcare, its use in education is completely new.

“Using phones to collect data not only saves on resources, reduces risks associated with loss of paper forms in transit, and minimises errors during data entry and analysis,” said David Nkrumah Boateng of Camfed Ghana, “but it also serves as a unique tool that helps us in the country office keep in touch with volunteers in the field and significantly improves our ability to respond to issues in real time”.

“The social skills this form of data gathering helps to generate, such as giving volunteers confidence to use technology, has also contributed immensely to building closer working relationships and effective partnerships.”

The initiative also showcased the increasing importance of charitable and private sector collaborations. Though both the mobile phone software for capturing data and the technology platform were available off-the-shelf, they were from different providers and the organization had no way initially of getting the data it collected from mobile phones into the reporting platform. Developers from IT consultancy ThoughtWorks, working pro-bono, stepped in to help and within three weeks had developed a bridge between the mobile phone technology and data storage platform.

For countries where English is not the primary language, ThoughtWorks also helped create a behind the scenes “dictionary” to translate entries in the local language to English. Phone users see the forms and enter the data in their local language, but as the data is transmitted and arrives in Camfed’s database, it is automatically translated.

Camfed has ambitious plans for this new technology, which is already having a major impact. From an initial trial involving 60 users, Camfed now has 475 volunteers utilizing the technology to collect data on thousands of girls in hundreds of schools. It now plans to roll out this cost-effective and easy-to-operate system to field and office users throughout Ghana, Malawi, Zambia, Tanzania and Zimbabwe – and to use the data to help schools identify ways to improve school performance.