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Why we used tablet computers for data collection

In 2013 PDA embarked on an exciting, new adventure with one of our clients. We started using tablets for data collection! And what an adventure it has been. This blog is the first of a series of three about our experience using tablet computers for data collection. This post focuses on why we chose to experiment with tablets. Future posts will address how we used them in our evaluation and what we learned about tablet-based data collection.

First a little background on the project…

The project is a multi-site evaluation of programs that provide in-person tobacco cessation counseling.  There are 17 sites spread throughout one state and each site is unique.  For example, some are in clinics while others are in homeless shelters and each has access to various levels of access to technology. And of course they have differing levels of technological skill.

For the evaluation component of this program, there are a few forms that need to be completed for each participant. There is an enrollment form that gathers demographic and tobacco-use information, and in most cases the counselor is completing this enrollment form during an in-person interview. There is another form that is completed by the counselor at the end of every counseling session that collects data about what was discussed or provided during the counseling session.

The problem with paper

The first time we evaluated this project we used paper forms. We printed and mailed the forms to the sites as needed, and then they mailed the completed forms to a vendor who scanned the surveys and manually entered some of the data. Then the data was transferred to us. If that already sounds like a lot of coordination, wait, it gets worse.

An important part of the evaluation was tying participant demographics collected on the enrollment form to the services they received on the utilization form, so we had ID numbers printed on labels that each site put on all of the forms for each participant.

Yes, this was a cumbersome process. And holy cow did we end up with a lot of paper. This was a problem for a handful of reasons, including:

  1. Consuming vast amounts of paper was not in line with our company’s sustainability practices and commitment towards the environment. The sites also expressed a desire for a greener solution.
  2. It was simple in that it didn’t involve fancy technology, but it was complicated in terms of having many forms, labels, and mailing procedures. Complicatedness = Headaches. No good.
  3. It was resource cheap, but labor intensive.  We didn’t need to invest in new technology, but coordinating the printing of forms for multiple sites was very time intensive.  And of course scanning and data entry added another step, taking more time and making it more difficult to provide timely feedback to each site. Intensive coordination = More headaches. Suddenly an electronic solution didn’t sound so costly.
  4. Data collection errors are inevitable when data is collected on paper no matter how transparent you try to make that skip logic. There were many errors also associated with scanning and manual data entry.
  5. Many of the programs we work with are HIPAA-covered entities, so we had to be really careful with the security of the paper forms and make sure the sites understood the importance of this as well. The potential for these completed forms floating about in the mail was a bit unnerving.

The solution to our problems

Given the problems that we encountered using paper forms, we started wondering more and more if electronic data collection was a better solution. It certainly was greener and more secure than paper. There are some upfront costs involved, but an electronic system could simplify our processes, thus reducing ongoing costs. And it seemed like it would greatly reduce data collection errors. All in all, we felt like electronic data collection was the way to go. And so began our journey.

Deciding which electronic device to use

So there are several electronic devices to choose from – the desktop computer, laptop computer, tablet, and smart phone. We considered all of these devices because they could eliminate our addition to paper, reduce data security vulnerabilities, and result in a more efficient data collection process. So why did we choose a tablet computer out of all of these devices?

Let’s start with the desktop / laptop computers. As I mentioned, some of the sites are in settings that don’t have access to a computer or internet, like in a homeless shelter. For these sites, using a desktop computer was out of the question due to portability. A laptop also seemed like it would be a bit clunky, and we would have the issue of the battery draining by the end of the day. So this eliminated the idea of relying on or using a desktop or laptop computer.

On the other end of the spectrum, the smart phone or other handhelds like the iPod or iTouch were simply too small for our data collection procedures. Our surveys require some typed free responses; we felt the small keypads would be a barrier and result in poor data entry or missing data. We also wanted to be sure the full question was visible on the screen, and this isn’t always possible on such a small screen.

So how about that tablet? Now this was something that could be easily carried around, even if someone is working in a homeless shelter. And with a 3G data plan, you have internet access at all times. We felt the screen was big enough for viewing questions and typing responses and it had enough battery power to get through days without being charged. So if Goldilocks was collecting data for our project in today’s world, she would find the desktop to be too big, the smart phone to be too small, and the tablet to be just right.

Stay tuned for our next post about which tablet computer we chose and how we set them up for our evaluation.


Posted in Technology