Management and deployment of Android devices including smartphones and tablets are a big part of setting up data collection and there are better and worse ways to go about it. The purchase of fieldwork devices is an investment in quality data and you’ll want to look after them as best you can and develop systems for getting them ready to be used in the field quickly, efficiently and consistently. This guide is intended to give you some general guidance on this topic.
While SurveyCTO Collect is also available for Apple iOS devices, this article focusses on Android given that most SurveyCTO users use Android. However, much of this advice will be relevant to iOS users too.
1. Inventory and asset management
When acquiring Android devices for use as fieldwork devices, you will want to make adequate records of them to promote good practice with deployment and recall of fieldwork devices. Make a record of each device, including its unique identifier (the IMEI number). If the IMEI number is displayed clearly on the device, you might consider scanning each IMEI code with SurveyCTO’s barcode scanning feature, capturing each device in a form. The IMEI of an Android device is also available in Settings > About > Status.
With a basic inventory established, you might consider your own numbering system. There are many asset management systems available. Most importantly, develop a system for recording who has what device and recording when that device is returned and when it is taken into the field by someone else.
2. Mobile service and collecting media
Mobile or cellular service in the country in which you’re collecting data is very useful. Most ideally, you will want a SIM card with mobile data service per device, so form submissions can be uploaded to your SurveyCTO server as records are finalized, when there is a data connection. It is possible to submit data over Wi-Fi and to economize on mobile service by using mobile Wi-Fi hotspots to submit data with but the best approach will be to allow each device to submit data as soon as possible.
Be sure to monitor usage of mobile data and make sure that enumerators have mobile data so that they can submit data using SurveyCTO Collect. Consider your data requirements relative to the media attachments (audio audits, images, videos, audio recordings) expected with your form design. Form submissions that have no media attachments will only be a few kilobytes in size on average.
It is also possible to control the size of the media attachments that become part of form submissions. It is important to note that SurveyCTO Collect itself does not record media, it relies upon the default applications on your device for recording, audio or video and for taking photos. Even budget devices today have high resolution cameras, capable of taking large photos with an unnecessary level of detail for most projects. Large photos can be difficult to upload to the server when Internet connections are poor. Our solution to this problem has been to add a General Setting to SurveyCTO Collect (available on version 2.50+) for choosing a level of image compression, to help you control the size of images. Try to determine the smallest file size that is suitable for your purposes.
Similarly, with audio audits and audio recordings (see audio audits and the audio field type), the default audio recording application does the work of recording audio. If such an application is not present on your device, you'll get an error message that says "No activity found to handle: audio capture.". You'll need to install an audio recorder that supports communication between Android apps, so that SurveyCTO Collect can control it (an Android standard known as intents). One such application is RecForge.
3. Deployment of SurveyCTO Collect
SurveyCTO Collect for Android is installable from the Google Play store which is by far the most convenient way to get started. The installer file can also be downloaded from the link in the first panel of the Collect tab on your SurveyCTO server console (this link looks like “YOURSERVERNAME.surveycto.com/collect”). You can download this directly onto devices, or onto a computer and copy onto devices over USB.
SurveyCTO Collect is highly customizable and there are many options as to what controls and options are available to enumerators while they collect data (see the next section). Once you’ve done this, consider using SurveyCTO Collect’s functionality to create a settings file to configure other instances of SurveyCTO Collect on other devices in the same way - this is discussed in the documentation on managing device settings. The advantage of doing this is that each of your enumerators will open SurveyCTO Collect and have exactly the same settings configuration.
You might consider using the same username and password for all your enumerators, rather than unique credentials. It is a common practice for enumerators to identify themselves through answering a select_one field’s question (e.g. “Choose your name from the list”). This won’t always be possible, as if you’re using case management, you’ll want to assign specific cases to particular users (or groups of users). Using a settings file to deploy identical settings can still help you save time, even if you customize the username and password in the end.
4. SurveyCTO Collect settings
It will take some trial and error to learn what SurveyCTO Collect settings will work for you. Also, one configuration may not work for every project. SurveyCTO Collect has two setting menus, General settings and Admin settings. Open either of these from the contextual menu button from the main menu of SurveyCTO Collect (the 3 dot icon in the top right hand corner of the screen). Note that by default, General settings are accessible to the user while completing a form. However, the accessibility of any option while collecting data and the visibility of any other option can be managed from Admin settings. Admin settings can also be password-locked to prevent modification.
Aside from the basic General settings which allow you to get blank forms from the server (server name, username, password), take note of the AUTO SEND/RECEIVE options, for automatic sending of finalized forms and downloading of form updates. The USER INTERFACE controls can be used to customize form navigation, including adding forward and back buttons and changing the font size and making fields in labels into clickable hyperlinks (used in non-linear form navigation). Depending on your data collection workflow, you may also wish to disable the Default to finalized option, if the data is to be reviewed on the device before submitting to the server, for example. EDIT SAVE FORM will govern the options you have in the Go To Prompt navigation menu (discussed in the designing for easy navigation topic).
The primary function of Admin settings is to remove access to SurveyCTO Collect features. This includes main menu options, General settings, navigational options and available options while a form is being completed. You will want to do this to make SurveyCTO Collect as simple as possible for enumerators and to limit the scope for problems which are the result of changing settings. For example, you might at least hide servername, username and password from enumerators, to be sure you don’t have to go over this when troubleshooting connection problems. Once you’ve configured settings as you like, consider adding an Admin Password to prevent enumerators for being able to change settings.
5. Android settings
While Android operating system settings are beyond the scope of this article, in general, we recommend that you think through useful operating system settings you want configured, and those you want disabled. Some examples include:
- If you're using devices with SIM cards in the field, make sure that your devices can connect to the Internet via the SIM cards (you may need to configure an Access Point Name (APN) settings).
- Configure time and date settings correctly, to get accurate timestamps in your data.
- For accurate GPS data collection (and a greater chance of collecting GPS coordinates in the first place), under Location settings, make sure to choose High accuracy mode (read this article for more advice).
- The Screen timeout setting on Android may need to be optimized out of respect to both enumerator frustration with having to continually unlock the screen when it times out, and battery life.
The above is a non-exhaustive list of possibly relevant Android settings. If you have a particular Android configuration for your fieldwork devices, you might consider locking enumerators out of device settings using an "app lock" application, as discussed in the "Other useful software" section below.
6. Android security
The Android operating system itself has many useful built-in security features which can be invaluable when using them for the purpose of collecting sensitive data. Most simply, mobile devices include pin or passcodes-locking functionality that govern access to devices. More recent devices include fingerprint unlocking (locking the device to an enumerator) which can be configured in addition to a password lock. Both are advisable to setup, so you can still unlock a device using a pin code.
Further, Android devices also feature device storage encryption and in later versions of Android (7.0+), they support encryption of specific files and folders which is highly advisable to configure (Settings > Security & privacy > Encryption & credentials > Encrypt phone). These files would be decrypted when the device is unlocked. A locked device which is encrypted (or at least has the "SurveyCTO" folder encrypted), is far less of a concern if it were to fall into the wrong hands (aside from unsubmitted data that might be lost).
7. Other useful software
Other applications can also help you manage fieldwork and limit scope for problems in the field. Aside from SurveyCTO Collect for collecting data, a number of other types of application could prove invaluable during data collection:
- Instant messaging applications can help you keep in contact with enumerators inexpensively, helping you to make announcements to them. Applications like WhatsApp can be useful for these purposes.
- Maps, directions and navigation can help enumerators find their way. Google Maps stands out as a great option (save maps for offline for use on Google Maps to conserve data and make sure Google Maps is available).
- App locks are a category of Android application for password-locking other applications. You might do this to prevent enumerators from using other applications which might consume mobile data service. You might do the same for SurveyCTO Collect and password lock it, so only your enumerators can access the forms. AppLock is one such application.
- Anti-virus applications can be useful for preventing malicious software from interfering with your devices. Given Android’s significance in the mobile device market, it is often a prime target for malware and viruses. Avira antivirus security is one example.
- Kiosk mode applications are designed to lock down Android devices, so only one, or a few applications are allowed. You might decide to use a kiosk mode application as an alternative to an app lock, to lock enumerators out of any applications you don’t wish them to use. An example is MobiLock Kiosk.
- Mobile Device Management (MDM) systems can be used to lock down and control any aspect of your device and can provide information like the current location of your devices. Such systems are popular in the corporate sector and can be costly and complex to set up. An MDM system might be more trouble than it is worth, depending on your project. An example is Cisco’s Meraki MDM.
- Barcode Scanner+ app is the barcode scanner which works with SurveyCTO’s barcode field type.
- If your device has no compatible audio recording app to use with SurveyCTO Collect, install a compatible one that supports "intents", like RecForge (see above).
There are other applications for Android which can be useful during data collection, depending on your project and requirements.
The above is intended to be a non-exhaustive list of tips on using and preparing Android devices for use on a SurveyCTO-powered mobile data collection project. While many of these are important considerations, you’ll have to work out over time what works best for you.
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