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Bringing field surveys into the modern, mobile world

  • Open Data Kit, a set of free and open-source survey tools, can integrate GPS locations, photos, videos and audio files into customized forms, while also working off-the-grid.
  • Users can transfer data collected in the field from the mobile device to a server and upload to Excel, Google Maps, or more sophisticated statistical analysis software.
  • Open Data Kit requires electricity to charge mobile devices, as well as the physical presence of surveyors to conduct the interviews, but its use can simplify data processing.

Conducting surveys in rural or natural areas and then digitizing and processing survey data can be challenging and time-consuming. Field researchers who have typically relied on pen and paper to collect data now have various new technologies available to them that can reduce the time and resources required for their studies. One such innovation, Open Data Kit (ODK), is a set of free and open-source tools that creates electronic survey forms. These forms enable field researchers to conduct their surveys digitally, using a mobile phone, allowing them to spend less time collecting and compiling information and more time analyzing it.

At the University of Washington, a group called Change developed ODK to facilitate the flow of information between remote communities and aid workers. ODK consists of several integrated tools; ODK Collect and ODK Aggregate are its main tools. The ODK program is compatible with Android operating systems (smartphones and tablets), and the simple or complex forms created by the user through the program can be accessed without Internet, allowing aid workers and field researchers to easily access them during data collection.

ODK Collect, as it appears on a smartphone.
ODK Collect, as it appears on a smartphone.

Once the user downloads ODK Collect onto a smartphone, personalized surveys, questionnaires, or even more complicated form structures such as decision trees can be saved to the phone to be accessed remotely. The forms support multiple languages, incorporation of GPS locations, data encryptions, photos, and audio and video files. Researchers send completed forms through the Internet to the server hosting the ODK’s Aggregate tool.

ODK Aggregate helps users manage data sent from the field, conduct basic data analysis or export data to more sophisticated analytical tools. The data in the ‘Aggregate’ location can be viewed as an Excel spreadsheet, a map, or in Google Earth and can run in the Cloud, Virtual Machine, and on private servers.

A wide range of potential uses

Open Data Kit uses range from data collection in medical, development, and educational sectors to documenting deforestation. In Amazonas state, Brazil, forest community members trained by Amazonas Sustainable Foundation (FAS) use ODK to collect and transfer data and images and to map the geographic coordinates of deforestation or degradation occurring within threatened areas, according to FAS researcher Gabriel Ribenboim. FAS compiles and analyzes the data at their headquarters in Manaus (Brazil).

Deforestation along the Peru, Brazil border
Deforestation along the Peru, Brazil border. Photo credit: Rhett A. Butler

Photo: Deforestation along the Peru-Brazil border. Photo credit: Rhett A. Butler

The Jane Goodall Institute (JGI) also uses ODK to monitor forest and natural resources in East Africa while empowering the local communities to make decisions about their surrounding forests. JGI-trained forest monitors in the USAID Gombe-Masito-Ugalla REDD Program inspect, patrol, and collect data on the forest, wildlife, and human activities, in addition to guarding the forests and the natural resources within them from potential threats. These monitors are equipped with Android smartphones or tablets, and they record any fires or illicit farming and resource extraction within reserves, as well as key wildlife sightings, via the installed ODK program. Once Internet is available, they upload the data to Google Cloud to contribute to the chimpanzee forest habitat monitoring effort.

Juvenile chimps hanging out in the forest canopy
Juvenile chimps hanging out in the forest canopy. Photo credit: Rhett A. Butler

Also in Tanzania, the community based elephant-chili fence project established around Mikumi and Tarangire National Parks uses Open Data Kit to survey farmers to better understand the human-elephant conflicts (HEC) that occur during the crop harvest season. During this period, elephants raid ripe crop fields, costing the farmers time, sleep, and money. Elephants encountered in fields at night can kill or injure people. Damage from these raids results in widespread retaliation against elephants, including poaching, spearing, and poisoning, which have contributed to the decline in Tanzania’s elephant population.

A chile fence designed to deter elephants with its pungent smell.
A chile fence erected to deter elephants from raiding a Tanzanian corn field. Photo credit: Nathan Hahn

Rangers in the two parks began using ODK in 2014 to quantify crop raiding incidents by tracking the number of crop raiding cases per month, year and season. By recording inspection and farmer interview data with this technology, rangers have begun to understand the severity of crop damage and the spatial and temporal movement patterns of elephants in these ecosystems.

They’ve also used the tool to assess the effectiveness of chili fences in reducing HEC. Chili fences are made from sisal rope and fabrics that have been dipped in chili oil. These low-cost, low-tech fences have helped reduce elephant crop raids in Mikumi and Tarangire, and other projects have produced similar results (Parker & Osborn 2006).

The rangers use a survey that consists of questions about the data collector, data collection method (e.g. interview with individual, group, or village), and type of mitigation used, such as chili fence, beehive fence, or flashing lights, while integrating GPS coordinates and crop damage photos. Once the survey is completed, the information is transferred to the server; researchers can then move the data to a statistical software program for analysis.

According to Project Field Coordinator Alex Chang’a in an email correspondence with WildTech, “the best aspect of ODK is that the whole process takes place without regular contact between the data collectors and researcher or supervisor. Additionally, data can be accessed from any place in the world provided there is internet…The limitation of ODK is that electricity for charging the smart phone may not be available; in rural areas, electricity may be a problem.”

Elephant trumpeting
Young elephant. Photo credit: Rhett A. Butler

Chang’a added that Open Data Kit is “cost effective and is the best data collection tool for wildlife researchers compared to GPS-based data collection, which needs data to be [collected] on data sheets, then delivered to the coordinator, followed by data entry, or the data needs to be downloaded from GPS followed by someone travelling to the coordinator.”

Unlike some newer applications like TextIt, the Open Data Kit platform does require surveyors to conduct the interviews in person, which requires time and resources. That, coupled with limited access to electricity and mobile phone service in many field sites, can cause issues for field teams collecting data. Nonetheless, the ability to collect digital data, including audio, photo and video, and send it all wirelessly to a data storage location at one’s home base, has made ODK a practical, time-saving tool for a range of studies.

Has your study used Open Data Kit? How did you use it?  Did you find any other benefits or limitations to this platform? If you’d like to learn more about the Open Data Kit software program, please visit

Disclosure:  RESOLVE supports the elephant-chili project in Tanzania.

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