Choosing an app
How to collect field data when working offline
Losing data can be catastrophic to a clinical or field study. Data collection is the means to a higher end. We rely on data to measure and evaluate a project, develop a new treatment or make decisions that can improve the lives of others.
Replacing paper forms with electronic data capture allows us to take higher precautions with our data. Data collected digitally can be instantly validated, analyzed and provided to stakeholders.
One of the concerns that researchers have when considering replacing paper questionnaires with a digital tool is, will it work anywhere, even if there is no internet connection? The answer is yes, but please don’t skip this guide as there are significant limitations to that initial answer that could affect the integrity of your data operations.
What is offline data collection?
Offline data collection is referred to data that is gathered in environments with slow or no internet access. Examples of such settings can be remote villages or large buildings with poor WIFI coverage. Offline data collection is made possible by tools that can store data temporarily in the memory of a smartphone, tablet or computer, and once an internet connection is gained, upload it to a server.
According to the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), the developing world is far from reaching the levels of connectivity the developed world has reached. More than 4 billion people have no access to the internet in more than 20 countries.
Platforms like the ones described in the first chapter of this guide 8 Mobile Data Collection Apps for Field Research will allow you to store data without a connection and then upload it to a server.
5 considerations when collecting data offline
By understanding the limitations and capabilities of any tool we can make the most out of it. Here are 5 considerations to keep in mind if you know you will be doing data collection in a setting that has slow or no internet.
1. Synchronize your data as soon as you can.
Consider offline data always at risk of being lost. Just like a suitcase with hundreds of paper records, a smartphone with valuable research data that is not yet uploaded to the cloud is a liability to a research team. All it takes is for that mobile device to be lost or damaged for valuable information to be lost.
To mitigate the risk of data loss, synchronize your data as soon as possible. Establish a standard operating procedure (SOP) with your field team and minimize the risk of offline data being lost by scheduling periodical moments when data will be synchronized with your server.
2. Don't clear 'app data' or reinstall the app otherwise offline data may be lost.
Deleting a mobile app can permanently remove any data that is associated with it. Only delete an app once you are sure that all of the local data has been uploaded to a server.
App developers will periodically provide updates of an app. This can be to fix bugs or release a new feature. Some apps will delete local data when an update is installed. Make sure you read the release notes of your data collection app to see if data must be synchronized before updating.
At Teamscope we work hard in improving our platform. We are regularly releasing new versions of our Android and iOS app. When installed an app update, offline data will not be lost. Deleting our app though will permanently delete any data that you have stored, including offline data entries.
3. When uploading a batch of offline form entries, check for the fastest connection.
Depending on your internet connection and the amount of data in those form entries, it can take seconds or up-to minutes to fully upload all of your data.
Check what is the fastest connection available around you. You can download the Speed Test app on your mobile device and see what is your fastest connection available.
4. Don’t use mobile notifications that require an immediate reaction.
Mobile notifications, also known as push notifications, allow apps to notify users without them having to open an application. They are a powerful way to instantly refer patients or remind us to complete task. A downside of mobile notifications is that they are not guaranteed to be delivered if the device has low-to-no connectivity.
If your team will be working mostly in an offline setting it’s best that you don’t implement notifications that will require them to take urgent actions.
5. Design a patient referral workflow that is resilient to connectivity issues
Medical and humanitarian teams will often implement task-shifting to maximize resources. A child might be screened in a village by Community Health Worker (CHW) using an algorithm and if the patient is sick or requires treatment, will be referred to a medical center.
Mobile data collection can improve the effectiveness of task-shifting interventions by allowing both parties to share data on cases that require further treatment or followup.
Since connectivity can be an issue in challenging environments, design a task-shifting workflow with this limitation in mind. The CHW can store the patient data digitally on a mobile data collection platform and additionally provide the patient a paper copy of the referral information.
Regardless if your are conducting a clinical study in a remote village in Kenya or in a hospital in the Netherlands you are not assured to have a stable internet connection at all moments. This is why our platform has been offline-first since day one, hundreds of researchers collect offline data everyday around the world using that functionality of our Android and iOS applications. We are continuously looking for ways to help you work seamlessly without the need for internet and we are happy to hear from you on how we can further improve this feature.