Notes from the field

Androids Come to Ghana


“If (1) is selected go to question 68e, if (2) is selected go to 70b, if  (3) is selected go to 80.”

This is just one of the dozens of instructions that surveyors on the Ghana Small Water Enterprise Study conducted by the JHU Global Water Program (GWP) and Center for Water and Health (CWH) have had to interpret in the middle of a household interview. Since 2008, we have managed a longitudinal study to understand the health impacts, changes in hygiene practices, and determinants of use related to water treatment and vending kiosks in four rural communities in Ghana. Each year, surveyors collect data from over 500 households in four languages.  These in-depth surveys can take over an hour, and the logic involved has been quite complex—forcing surveyors to flip back and forth between pages, parse and interpret survey directions while simultaneously maintaining the flow of the interview. In order to improve data quality and streamline the survey process, our team at the Center for Water and Health decided to pilot the use of mobile devices/cell phones for data collection.

Training Session
Surveyors demonstrating touchscreen gestures in a training session.

After an extensive review of available data collection software, we narrowed in on open source software that runs on Google’s Android operating system, called Open Data Kit (ODK) .  This software allows people to use simple gestures on a touchscreen to input data on a complex form in multiple languages. Piloting the phones and software in Baltimore gave us confidence, but the only true test would be to take it to the field, in Ghana.

To estimate the learning curve of introducing our new technology to the group of 30 field surveyors, we administered a brief survey of their experience and perceptions of smart phones and PDAs. It became clear that most people had heard of the technology but none had ever used it personally or in a study. Most of the surveyors were in their early to mid twenties and had experience sending SMS text messages and using the Internet.  This exposure to computing devices like phones and computers surely helped speed up their adoption of the Android devices.  The surveyors used that background to enthusiastically brainstorm about potential pitfalls, voicing concerns about the battery life of the devices, but they were happy to hear that the batteries on these devices would last up to two full days in the field.

Surveyor in action

Introducing a new technology to surveyors can be risky because all data collection now hinges on the surveyors rapid mastery of a new device. Touch screens are so pervasive in many of our lives in the U.S. that we forget that it takes a little time to get the basics down. After focusing on the questions and questionnaire on paper, we introduced the phones. Projecting an emulated device on a wall allowed for people to practice their skills and share with others.  The surveyors worked on a number of practice surveys that incorporated all the key skills and gestures needed in the real survey while demonstrating how built-in constraints and skip logic/branching could help to make their work easier. After the second day, not one person had obvious difficulties with the new technology.

Our decision to use ODK has proven successful in surprising ways. Each night we check the day’s data and make sure that our team followed protocol. We rapidly plot all coordinates of water points, sanitation facilities, and households, and view the length of time it took to complete the survey. Feeding this basic information back to surveyors turns out to be a strong motivator. Previously, many surveyors were unsure why we collected GPS points, despite instructions and discussion, but this regular visual demonstration makes it clear to all why standing for an extra minute to get a more accurate fix is worth the effort. 

Droid Screen
The survey screen on the Google Android

In Ghana, we are now using an unmodified version of ODK to administer the surveys, which has allowed us to test the core functionality of the software and device combination while creating a space to develop ideas for further development. Each day brings new challenges related to data collection and with it new ideas for further development. Upon returning to JHU, we hope to create a customized version of ODK that will allow for integration of water quality testing apparatus and other water and sanitation specific tools. We hope to share this software with other researchers in the sector to improve the quality of data and contribute to more evidence-based research related to water, sanitation, and hygiene.



Google Android, Open Data Kit, Small Water Enterprise, Ghana, water survey

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