What is data collection software?
Data collection software is a computerised system for the collection and storage of qualitative and quantitative data in an electronic form. The benefits of using data collection systems is that they eliminate the use of paper surveys and allow data to be quickly exported for data analysis and reporting.
Data collection software was first introduced in the early 1980s (Hyde, 1998) to address the many shortcomings of paper-based forms, such as increased errors through transcription and late detection of inaccuracies. The first of these systems to become widely adopted where Microsoft Access and MySQL. With the turn of the century came the cloud, which expanded any web browser into a platform to visualise and complete forms. This innovation was the big bang of the paper-less movement.
Despite the advances in web-based data entry systems, historically field researchers and clinical teams working on the go have still suffered from the burden of paper-based data gathering. This is due to a simple reason: web-based data recording tools become useless when there is no internet. Although smartphone adoption in the world has skyrocketed in the last five years, internet access has not increased at the same speed, and so much of the world today remains offline.
Capturing data offline
Data collection apps are mobile applications that make it possible to collect data from a smartphone, tablet or iPad. One of the main advantages of data collections apps is the possibility of gathering data offline or while on-the-go. Offline forms allow researchers that are working in places with unreliable internet to store a backup of their data on their mobile device and upload it once an internet connection is available.
As researchers today see the immense advantages of using mobile survey apps over paper-based forms, the number of data collection solutions grows. With this article, we hope to answer the question of which of these options may suit your research purposes best. We also suggest you read our guide on the best practices for offline data collection for an in-depth view on how to successfully capture in remote areas.
Case Management vs Cross-sectional data collection
When looking into data gathering tools for research, it is essential to acknowledge that projects differ in their design and purpose. Thus the mobile survey platform of choice should be flexible enough to be used for a range of different data, as well as in potentially disconnected areas.
One crucial distinction between different research projects is the time frame. Will the data only be captured from subjects once, in other words, cross-sectional? Or does the research require measurements at multiple moments across time, in other words, longitudinal?
Research that involves recording data at a single one point in time, a so-called, snapshot of a population is a cross-sectional study. This data is only collected once. Often, these studies do not collect personally identifiable information (PII) as there is no need for a follow-up on the study subjects. These types of studies are always observational, wherein researchers record information about their subjects without manipulating the study environment. Examples of cross-sectional studies are patient registries or household surveys.
Some projects will requiere the same subjects to be surveyed at different moments of time, in other words longitudinally. To be able to efficiently follow-up on subjects, longitudinal projects require a data gathering solution that supports case management.
Case management is the ability to create entities and follow-up on them across time. A case can be anything — patient, beneficiary, location, program or facility. Case management saves time and improves data quality in longitudinal research because it eliminates the need to re-enter baseline data each time the same subject is assessed.
With an ever-increasing saturation of mobile survey solutions, we researched the best ones to date. We aimed to investigate their range of utility - for both cross-sectional and longitudinal studies-, their suitability for offline surveys, and their further services that set them apart.
Teamscope is a secure and easy-to-use data collection platform, specially designed for sensitive data and clinical research.
In a field where most tools are web-only and useless without an internet connection, Teamscope offers a unique approach at on-the-go and secure data gathering. With it’s offline-first Android and iOS mobile survey app, Teamscope allows researchers to create powerful mobile forms, collect data both qualitative and quantitative data offline and visualize it with a few clicks.
Teamscope sets data security as its highest priority. Data is stored encrypted on mobile devices and users, apart from requiring a username and password to login, must create a four digit passcode to unlock the app. All sessions on its mobile app time out after 30 seconds of inactivity or once the app has been closed, to access the app a user must reenter their Teamscope passcode.
When conducting a longitudinal study, researchers can make use of Teamscope’s case management feature. This functionality allows them to create cases for individual subjects, share them with other users in their project, and upload data for their cases in multiple moments
Teamscope has three subscription plans, and the first one, Open Research, allows users to use the platform for free with up to 5 users and 250 form submissions per month. The other options, "Team" and "Enterprise" plans, expand on the Open Research plan through longitudinal research options and electronic Patient-Reported Outcomes (ePRO).
Features: Cross-platform (iPad, iPhone & Android), Study builder, mobile surveys, case management, data visualization, customer support
Cost: Plans starting at €0/month.
Open Data Kit (ODK) is open-source software for collecting, managing and using data in resource-constrained environments. The goal of ODK is to offer open-source and standards-based tools which are easy to try, easy to use, easy to modify and easy to scale (ODK website).
Open Data Kit allows multiple types of data - from text to pictures to location - to be entered and collected in line with the researchers need.
Open Data Kit further has an immense and highly active community. The ODK forum (https://forum.opendatakit.org) is a space where ideas on mobile data collection can be shared and discussed. Here users can also find assistance on the ODK software.
Features: Study builder, offline forms, community
Cost: Free, open source
KoBoToolbox is a free, open-source tool for mobile data gathering developed by the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative. KoBo Toolbox is widely used for data entry in humanitarian organizations like the International Rescue Committee (IRC), United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and Save the Children.
Data entry may be done via the web browser or on Kobo Toolbox’s Android application called KoboCollect. KoboCollect supports offline data entry with on both Android phones and tablets.
The KoBoToolbox software can be installed on any computer or server, and there are two servers available that allow for free usage: http://bit.ly/2KeHxOK
To visualize, analyze, share, and download your collected data, researchers may use KoBoToolbox’s web application. Advanced users can also install their KoBoToolbox instance on a local computer or server.
Features: Study builder, offline forms, open source, community
Cost: Free, open source
Availability: Android and Web.
REDCap is a secure electronic data capture (EDC) solution (web, smartphone, tablet and iPad) for building electronic case report forms and managing databases.
REDCap was created in 2004 at Vanderbilt University. At that time, most Electronic Data Capture (EDC) platforms were geared towards large clinical trials. These, however, were too expensive for academic biomedical researchers in need of a data entry tool that met HIPAA and ICH-GCP compliance standards. The objective of this project thus was to empower the researchers by allowing them to single-handedly manage their databases, without the need for any programming or technical knowledge.
In April of 2015, REDcap released its iOS and Android application, which extended the functionality of the platform into smartphones and tablets and enabled data collection in places with slow or no internet.
REDcap is used in over 130 countries by more than 3.600 institutions.
Non-profit organizations can join the REDcap consortium and receive a free license of the software, which allows them to install and manage REDcap on their own IT infrastructure.
Features: Longitudinal data collection, offline forms, randomization, on-premise hosting
Cost: Free for nonprofits
Availability: Android, iOS and Web.
Magpi is a mobile data recording app that allows users to create mobile forms both on and offline within minutes. Its use extends through the health, agriculture, environment and industry sectors, where rapid and low-cost conduction of mobile surveys enables scalable and straightforward research.
Various functions of Magpi include mobile surveys, automatic updates, photos and GPS stamping. Further integrated workflows allow feeding user’s data into almost any web-accessible system, including Google spreadsheet, Salesforce account or SQL databases.
Magpi aims to make the most out of mobile data collection apps by reducing accidental errors through logic branching, eliminating wasteful paper use and benefiting from fast input and automatic analysis of modern-day smartphone capabilities.
With four easy steps from setting up an account, to creating a form, and downloading the app, you can start collecting data. This simplicity and efficiency means you are ready to start collecting data on any smartphone, tablet or iPad within minutes.
Features: Offline data entry, SMS notification, Interactive voice response (IVR) data collection, Zapier integration
Cost: Free basic accounts, paid pro and enterprise plans available
Jotforms, a reputable simple online form builder, has expanded its range with a new mobile data recording app called Jotforms mobile.
This app allows users to collect various types of data, such as voice recordings, barcodes, geolocations and electronic signatures and then build, view, access, sort, fill out, share, and organise all this data in a single place. The utility of using a mobile data recording app, in this case, enables it to function offline and utilise iOS and Android push notifications to alert the user of new respondents or changes in data. PDF copies of submitted information can even be downloaded or shared.
One of Jotforms distinct features is Kiosk Mode. Kiosk mode turns your tablet or iPad into a fixed survey station. While on this mode, respondents only have access to a single form, blocking them from other submissions or forms. This feature increases data security and makes it easy to collect data in public spaces, such as hospital waiting rooms, conferences or social events.
With ever-increasing sizes of studies and research groups, Jotforms mobile further enables collaboration between team members. Mobile forms can be created and assigned to individual researchers who will then collect data even in areas with limited or no connection to the internet. Once respondents have filled in the forms, you can view the data, and act quickly on the information you have received.
The continuing development of JotForms mobile makes this very useful and scalable mobile data collection app.
Features: Mobile form builder, Offline data gathering, Kiosk Mode.
Cost: Free basic accounts, paid pro and enterprise plans available
Survey CTO is a reliable, secure and scalable mobile data collection app for researchers and professionals. This app expanded on the Open Data Kit (ODK) software to increase its scale, utility and power.
The application allows users to design a variety of complex survey forms with either an intuitive spreadsheet format or a drag-and-drop form. Data can further be pre-loaded and streamed between datasets. The data can also be collected offline with the SurveyCTO Android app or using an online web interface. The data is kept secure through multiple layers of encryption and redundancy and is further GDPR compliant. The researcher or professional is further able to monitor all incoming data using review and corrections workflow, automated quality checks, and data classification systems. Visualisation of the data is almost instant through a built-in tool, and further analysis of the data is done using external analytical tools.
The platform itself consists of four components; the server console which functions as a host for both empty and filled-in forms. Here the forms are further designed, tested and reviewed. The second component is the android app used for collecting the data. From here it is either uploaded to the server console or synchronised over local wi-fi networks. The third component of SurveryCTO is SurveyCTO sync, a desktop application, responsible for downloading, transporting, exporting, and processing the data. The last element is the data explorer; here, the data can be monitored, reviewed, and visualised.
SurveyCTO has further built up a large community of users over 165 countries that aim to offer advice and information on various projects: https://www.surveycto.com/product/users/.
Features: Data encryption, Mobile & Online surveys, Monitoring and visualization, Online training course
Cost: $198 per team per month
Availability: Android and Web
CommCare is a world-class data collection platform developed by Dimagi and widely adopted by international organizations such as Partners in Health, International Rescue Committee (IRC) and USAID.
The platform supports both cross-sectional and longitudinal data and is geared towards humanitarian and medical data gathering. CommCare stands out for its comprehensive onboarding support with the possibility for on-site training.
The platform consists of an intuitive drag-and-drop web interface for designing your own mobile forms and an Android application for robust and offline data recording.
Features: Case Management, Online and on-site training course, SMS
Cost: Free for personal use, plans starting at $250/month.
Availability: Android and Web
Mobile data collection apps are becoming integral to secure, reliable and scalable research. The efficiency and dependability of these mobile survey apps, even in offline settings, open doors to new research possibilities. It begins with the freedom and adaptability of designing research-specific forms that work even in the most challenging environments; it continues with secure and collaborative data entry, and ends with faster data analysis and visualisation.
Data in research is always bound by ethical and technical dilemmas. Data should be reusable, findable, accessible, and interoperable according to the FAIR principles (Wilkinson et al., 2016). These dictate that data should be licensed and provide accurate information, have a persistent and unique identifier, be understandable and stored securely, and have broadly applicable language for knowledge representation, respectively (Cavalli, 2018). Although any digital form may suffice for the purpose of data gathering, not every data collection system may be used for sensitive, clinical or research data.
We believe that Teamscope stands out in the mobile data collection landscape and is the best choice for research purposes. No other application combines data encryption, passcode lock, cross-device compatibility with iOS and Android, support for both cross sectional and longitudinal studies, like Teamscope does. Moreover, the availability of a free plan (Open Research), enables this technology to any researcher in the world.
Are you planning on launching a new study soon? Register for a live demo today.
Cavalli, Valentino. “Open Consultation on FAIR Data Action Plan.” LIBER, 13 July 2018, http://bit.ly/2Ymffdv.
“Because Your Data Is Worth It.” SurveyCTO, www.surveycto.com/
“Data Collection App for Research: Get Started for Free.” Teamscope, www.teamscope.co/.
“Data Collection Tools for Challenging Environments.” KoBoToolbox, www.kobotoolbox.org/
“Easy Mobile Forms, Anywhere On Any Device.” Magpi, www.home.magpi.com/
Epesito, Emily, and Matthew Guey. “The 5 Best Data Collection Tools in 2019: The Best Apps for Gathering Data in the Field.” Zapier, Apr. 2019, www.zapier.com/learn/forms-surveys/best-data-collection-apps/
Hyde, A.W. (1998). "The Changing Face of Electronic Data Capture: From Remote Data Entry to Direct Data Capture". Therapeutic Innovation & Regulatory Science. 32 (4): 1089–1092. doi:10.1177/009286159803200429.
Moriki, Darin. “Top 6 Mobile Data Collection Apps You Need to Try: The JotForm Blog.” Jotform Blog, 4 June 2019, www.jotform.com/blog/top-free-mobile-data-collection-apps/.
“Open Data Kit.” Open Data Kit, 1 Mar. 2018, www.opendatakit.org/
“REDCap.” REDCap, www.project-redcap.org/
Wilkinson, M. D. et al. (2016). The FAIR Guiding Principles for scientific data management and stewardship. Scientific Data, 3, 160018. doi:10.1038/sdata.2016.18