UK Research and Innovation | Survey

1st Submission Bronze Trophy

Using mobile and smartphone technology can transform social science

Sustainable health and wellbeing is reliant on social-ecological systems. However, whilst natural science has seen dramatic up-scaling in recent years (i.e. via remote sensing), social science data has lagged behind. Social science data can be unique to the individual and it is hard to scale-up social science without losing the ability to capture this uniqueness to the individual. As well poor spatial resolution, social science data is typically not very temporally resolute. Some surveys may be carried out a few times a year, but it is hard to do this over large areas.

However, this can all change. Access to mobile phones is rapidly increasing. In 2005 in the developing world, there were 23 mobile subscriptions per 100 inhabitants and no concept of mobile internet; in 2015, there were 92 mobile subscriptions and 39 mobile internet subscriptions per 100 inhabitants (ITU, 2016). Properly understanding how best to utilise modern information and communication technologies as data collection tools has the potential to transform our understanding across numerous disciplines.

Mobile and smart phones enable us to repeatedly ask questions at daily or weekly timescales over national or continental scales – something before that has been unfeasible in social science. It is also possible to compensate respondents for their participation via micropayments. As well as enabling high spatio-temporal resolution, using mobile and smartphones to collect social science data means surveys can be fit into a moment of downtime (i.e. when it is convenient for the respondent and not for the survey team) enabling a more representative sample than conventional surveys, which can only capture those respondents willing and able to take time away from work to participate. This is a critical advantage in comparative analysis across strata of income and economic opportunity.

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How could digital technologies provide a solution to this challenge?

Mobile and smartphones enable social surveys to be conducted at high spatial and temporal resolutions, without making the data more course. This method also has the potential to make the make surveys more representative if barriers to literacy can be overcome.

BHUVANA K.B 2 months ago

Hi Simon, Bhuvana here. I agree to what you say. Please look into the ideas, I have posted, which is related. Please give your comments on that

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Ezinne Emeana 2 months ago

This is great submission @ Simon. It is amazing the improvement the penetration and ownership of mobile phones especially the feature and smart phones can make when deployed to the right course.

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Simon Willcock 2 months ago

Thanks!

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Osu 2 months ago

Tools such as survey solutions and mWater makes this possible

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David Stern 2 months ago

Simon thanks for opening this discussion I have been involved in a number of projects which also break down some of the barriers between the social and natural science through digital data collection. I'm really pleased you mentioned the challenge of sampling bias.

Another exciting solution to the sampling problem which a farmer federation recently came up with was to attempt to use the digital data tools so that they collected data on all their members, a census rather than a sample! I was particularly impressed as they successfully did this with the main incentive to their members being a digital registration card.

Interestingly the main opposition they got was from the local social scientist who were supporting their work but couldn't deal with this change of methodology. In practice this is a substantial hurdle to overcome, how can social scientists be helped to embrace these new opportunities?

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Simon Willcock 2 months ago

Good question! I have also met resistance here from more traditional social scientists. For me, the solution is validation and quantifying the uncertainty associated with all methods. Of my current projects (https://www.rustindia.online/ and https://msds.tools/), both validate mobile phone methods against more traditional forms of data collection. This is difficult to do as you need to collect the data at the same temporal scale in order to be comparable as the frequency with which you ask a question changes the answer (https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=...l.pone.0165924). However, it is possible. Once we have demonstrated that the new methods give the same (or similar) answers to traditional methods when run alongside each other, then social scientists might be less sceptical of our digital approaches.

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David Cutting 1 month ago

Regarding validation against traditional methods (or lack thereof) is there any particular reason or effect cited as to why results may be different/invalid using a technical method? From my perspective it seems likely that, outside perhaps specific communities or cohorts with little technical buy-in, a low impact technical sampling process would have greater reach.

Mainly I'm asking as if the validation (traditional versus new) "fails" so shows a difference, it's going to be important to understand why - we might be seeing a weakness in traditional rather than a failing in new if that makes sense.

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Simon Willcock 1 month ago

I am not sure about cited reasons, but when I present this work I often meet resistance from social scientists who do not believe the survey results if it is done using a mobile phone (i.e. what if they lie? how do you know they are telling the truth? etc). Whilst these issues are shared amongst all survey techniques, because this is a newer method it is viewed with scepticism.

But yes, I agree with you. Mobile and smartphone methods may show a difference with more traditional survey methods because the newer methods are better! It is very important to compare these methods and investigate the sources of any differences.

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David Stern 1 month ago

Hi Simon I've been musing over this and want to push you a bit harder. Many of the groups I work with are adopting digital solutions because they need the information. They could not afford to get it in more traditional ways and in some cases it simply wouldn't be possible.

The key point is that these are not people who have the academic profile to be taken seriously with really innovative methods and yet the are driven to use innovative methods by circumstance. They are often young isolated researchers who need help and support but for whom the methods they are trained in do not match the needs of their environment.

My question is could we help local social scientists working in these difficult environments to leapfrog the traditional methods? And what would it take to achieve this?

I am conscious that many would not have the experience to identify the potential biases that come from their chosen approach, hence they would be vulnerable to valid criticism of their methods and even scepticism of their results. However through constructive academic scrutiny the methods, results and researchers could be built up to achieve something of great value.

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Simon Willcock 1 month ago

Hi David,

I agree. I think there is scope to support local scientists to leapfrog traditional methods. A key step to do this is to understand the potential biases of the high-tech methods and how they can be overcome. We have already begun this process. Here (https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=...l.pone.0165924) we look at how asking questions at different frequencies can bias the answer. In the same project we tested to see users asking questions to their neighbours could get a more representative or targeted sample (e.g. 'Please ask the following question to a neighbour who cannot read' would overcome the need for literate respondents). In the MobilES project we further validate/investigate these techniques (https://msds.tools/).

Once we understand the advantages and pitfalls of the digital methods, we could produce survey apps/tools that already contain methods to negate some of the known biases. Making these freely available could really help to support the local researchers you mention.

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Davis Ntwiga 1 month ago

@Simon, the gap between natural and social sciences is wide. There is need for more collaborations and interdisciplinary research work in the two fields.

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Charlene McShane 1 month ago

Hi Simon,
I agree with the others that this is a great post.

Although smartphone access has increased, internet still remains an issue in some parts of the world. I recently proposed to do an online survey among university students but was informed that only staff have access to internet facilities within the university. When it was suggested that students could complete the online survey via phone, I was advised that uptake would be poor as students would be reluctant to use their limited data packages to complete a survey. In this situation, the traditional paper based survey seems the only way forward.

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Simon Willcock 1 month ago

Hi Charlene,

I definitely agree with you about internet access - although that is increasing and mobile data is becoming cheaper every year! That it is possible to conduct these surveys using SMS messages (i.e. without internet).

Also, I agree that participants should not be paying for the data we are using. That is why I propose a microdata for micropayments approach (see this open access paper for more information https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=...l.pone.0165924). That way, those running the survey can compensate the participants by via providing free credit/data. For example, in Cambodia, I am just setting up a mobile phone survey and if participants answer enough questions then they receive a $5 top-up per month - this is enough to give them free internet for the entire month!

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Charlene McShane 1 month ago

Hi Simon,

This is really interesting and would be a great way of increasing participation within low-resource settings.

Would you mind elaborating on how you have set up your study in Cambodia? For example, do you need to make a deal with a phone company and/or provide participants with certain SIM cards or smartphones?

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Simon Willcock 1 month ago

It varies from country to country. In Bangladesh, we did work with the mobile provider to get a better deal. In Cambodia, the $5 for a month of internet offer is a standard offer available to anyone, and we use that. Of course, when bulk-buying phones, it is possible to negotiate discounts. The up-front cost is relatively high (e.g. 480 phones and data in Cambodia costs ~£40,000). But this is probably lower than the cost of sending our post-doc out each week to run the same surveys in person.

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Faith Taylor 1 month ago

Hi Simon, thanks for this, really interesting read! We also found that sharing data in a mobile friendly format was helpful for decision makers. In workshops, we were able to provide a hyperlink for participants (in this case urban planners) to browse through the qualitative GIS maps on their phones rather than present static slides or hand out paper copies. I tried to use existing mature apps (e.g., Google Maps, OpenDataKit etc) rather than create bespoke new ones to minimise the time/money investment in app development and continued support. Interested to hear what apps/methods you use. You can read more about our project here: https://whydarproject.wordpress.com/
Agreed there is a bit of an issue here about if/how people are compensated for data usage, but I like your suggested approach of issuing credit for completing a survey (so long as this doesn't become simply a way to get free airtime!).

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Simon Willcock 1 month ago

Hi Faith!

I've not thought of using mobiles in that way, but that is a really good idea. In another project, we are using ESRI story maps with decision makers in a similar way to you. I will definitely give you project a read over Christmas.

We tend also to use existing apps (e.g. ODK, GeoODK etc), but sometimes also code a wrapper that the ODK sits inside - this can make it slightly more user friendly or visually appealing.

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Faith Taylor 1 month ago

Hi Simon, great to hear you are using Storymaps! I've used these for teaching but not research yet - I'm a bit torn as I try to use FOSS where possible, but ESRI do seem to have nailed the user interface for this (and their apps). There does seem to be a FOSS version but not tried this yet https://uploads.knightlab.com/storymapjs/2c35...tage/index.html.

Will look forward to reading more about your projects. Cool to hear about the ODK wrapper - agreed it looks a bit clunky otherwise! :)

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Simon Willcock 1 month ago

Thanks for that! I also use FOSS where possible, so I'll ask my post-doc to look into that!

It definitely sounds like we have similar research interests. We are trying to collate all similar work on a new website (https://msds.tools/). If you want any of your work featured on it, just send me a project description similar to the ones already there and I would be happy to link to any websites you have (e.g. as I have done with the RUST project, for example).

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lauren clarke 2 weeks ago

Status label added: 1st Submission Bronze Trophy

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