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How we used tablet computers for data collection

This is the second post of a series of three that discusses our experience using tablet computers for data collection. In the first post I talked about why we chose to use them. In this post I describe how we used them.

The data entry system

There are a lot of survey apps and websites out there, but they really didn’t meet our data collection or security needs, so we elected to build our own customized web-based data entry portal that could be used on a tablet. Since we built a secure website instead of an app, the funded sites that were collecting evaluation data could enter the data directly into our database over the web instead of on the tablet itself which was important privacy needs of the organizations. Hooray for not having to worry about the tablet getting lost or stolen with protected health information on it! However, this meant that we needed to figure out a way for the tablets to connect to the internet which I will touch on soon.

As if that weren’t sweet enough, the sites also have the option of entering the data into the portal via their own computers, or they can print paper versions of the data collection forms from the portal and at a later time manually enter the data into the portal through a special data entry form. So with this system there are three options for data collection – tablet, computer, or paper. Additionally, each staff person at each site had their own account on the website so they could only see the data they entered, not anyone else’s.

We have a programmer on staff and secure infrastructure so building a HIPAA-compliant web-based portal was not new territory. Additionally, using this approach gave us the flexibility to expand the evaluation in some exciting ways. For example, the portal allows each site to monitor their data and progress in meeting benchmarks in real-time, review their data that has already been entered, and access all of the evaluation training materials from the portal. So we think it’s pretty sweet.

Which tablet computer to choose…

Drumroll…. and the winner is the refurbished iPad 2! The cost was slightly higher than other tablets, but at the time we were setting up this project (two years ago), there were far fewer tablets on the market and most of them were still pretty buggy except for Apple’s. If we did this project again, we would definitely reassess the tablet market and determine if this is still the best route to go.

We chose to buy refurbished iPads directly from Apple for a number of reasons. First, they were cheaper (obviously) than the new iPad 2 and 3, but came with fewer bells and whistles which was unimportant to use since these would only be used for data collection. Second, unlike most tablets at the time which only connected to the internet through WIFI, iPads could be purchased with data plans that could run over an AT&T or Verizon 3G network, allowing them to be used in the field. Third, buying a refurbished iPad directly from Apple (as opposed to other resellers) comes with a new battery, outer shell, and the option to buy the same 2 year AppleCare warranty that brand new iPads come with. This warranty covers any malfunctioning of the iPad, but not things like damage from dropping it. Apple Care was another unique and important aspect of the iPad versus other tablets. It actually came in handy – one iPad didn’t turn on upon receiving it, so we replaced it right away. Another one stopped charging after about a year in the field, so we simply called up Apple and they shipped a replacement iPad right away, free of charge.

How we set up the tablets

At the start of the funding period we met with all of the sites over the phone and, not surprisingly, they all expressed interest in having an iPad. The first time we did this, we gave each staff person involved with data collection an iPad, which could be several staff members for one site, but we learned that was often too many. Some staff ended up sharing the tablet or used their own computer or the paper forms for data collection, so they didn’t need the tablet. So the second time around we gave each site one iPad, and later determined if each site needed more. That seemed to work much better in terms of each site ending up with the right number of iPads. Over the course of two funding cycles, we have purchased over 20 iPads to be used for the evaluation.

So the idea of having a free iPad for a few years sounds pretty nice right? Well, we of course had to take a little bit of the fun out of it. We really wanted to be sure that the iPads were only used for data collection since they were purchased with grant dollars, so we set up the iPads with a few features that helped ensure just that.

Restrictions. We used Apple’s free iPhone Configuration Utility (despite the name, this works fine on iPhones and iPads) to install a configuration profile on each iPad that set up some passcode restrictions. The configuration profile is unique to Apple products and is free to download and install. While it takes a little while to manually install on each iPad (we would have needed an Apple server to automate this which we didn’t have) it was cheaper than with non-Apple tablets which would have required a third-party pay per tablet per month service to customize them. We also used the configuration profile to restrict the sites’ ability to download apps and make changes to some of the settings. Limiting the available features of the iPad helped to justify the purchase of them with grant dollars and to ensure they would be used appropriately. The configuration utility couldn’t restrict everything we wanted it to do, but was pretty darn close.

Data plan. As I mentioned, the sites needed internet access to enter data, so we bought 3G enabled iPads and set up a 3G data plan on each iPad (4G was not widely available at this time). We limited the amount of data that could be used on the 3G network to 250 megabytes per month – it was plenty of data for data collection but not quite enough to watch a movie on it every Saturday night. The data plans were set up through AT&T because they have the best coverage in the area the sites are located. To ensure that sites did not exceed these data levels, we configured automated emails to be sent to us from AT&T if someone was approaching their data plan limit for the month. To date we’ve only have two instances where someone was approaching their data plan limit. We simply made the site staff aware of this and haven’t had any problems with sites going over the limit.

Contract. Each site signed an equipment loan agreement for use of the iPad. The agreement outlined what happens in the event of theft, loss, or damage, what they’re responsible for, that the iPad will be returned to us at the end of the grant period, and things like that. The sites had to sign this agreement before we gave them possession of an iPad. To date we haven’t had any issues with theft, loss, or damage. Whew.

Training and technical assistance. At the start of the project we trained the sites on how to use the iPads and portal. This training was part of a bigger grant / evaluation training. We learned from the first time doing the training that having more hands on activities with the iPad and portal might be helpful to better teach the sites how to use the technology. For one activity we created a checklist of tasks for the sites to complete on the iPad along with images or screen shots of how they might complete that task. It started with simple tasks like ‘turn on the iPad’ and gradually worked up to more complex tasks in the portal itself like ‘complete an enrollment form’.  The sites worked at their own pace and we walked around the room and helped where needed, which seemed to work really well because people have such different levels of technological expertise and experience.

We also subcontract with an evaluation firm located in the same state as the sites. They provide ongoing technical assistance to the sites and are able to provide any follow-up training or troubleshoot any issues with them. That’s really helpful for us to have given our distance from the sites.

So how’d it go?

You’ll have to wait to find out.  Our next post will discuss what we’ve learned from this project and what you should consider if you’re thinking about using an electronic device for your project.


Posted in Technology