Reflections on the NOMAD workshop

Last month, the NOMAD team organised a workshop at the French Space Agency (CNES) headquarters. The aim was to link humanitarian organisations interested in using data collection tools for their field work with solution providers. My colleague Michalis and I presented our ExCiteS Data Collection tool (which is in advanced prototype) and get valuable feedback from people who work with mobile collection tools (Figure 1). Especially the fact that most of the participants work in areas where mobile phones are not “ubiquitous” as it is often claimed, sounded very appealing and interesting to us. My aim here is not to discuss our own tool, but rather reflect on the rest of the workshop.

ExCiteS - Altenbuchner - Vitos
Figure 1

The NOMAD Selection Assistant

The workshop started with the NOMAD team presenting their own tool. Since hard- and software requirements in mobile data collection depend heavily on the specific project, it requires a huge amount of research to identify which collection tool to choose. To overcome these complications, NOMAD has developed an Online Selection Assistant. It helps organisations to identify the most suitable solution according to their needs. Using the Online Selection Assistant, the user navigates through specific questions in the form of a decision tree, while all the tools which do not match the selections are filtered out on the way. Ideally, there will be one or more solutions left in the end. One thing that was requested in the workshop is some sort of full overview. For instance a matrix table, which plots the tools against the possible features. Such an overview could prove useful, since it could prevent the most suitable solution from being filtered out early in the selection process. However, people interested in using mobile data collection tools should give it a go, since it is a very useful tool and as far as I am aware, the only one existing.

Unusual situations call for unusual measures

This workshop was not just about collecting data on a mobile phone: most of the participants tend to work in areas missing necessary prerequisites for applying such a system, they find themselves dealing with issues that sound very familiar to me. One very interesting approach in solving the network connection issue is the Serval Project. Their vision is to design a phone system that does not require any infrastructure. Serval is a free, open-source software under development for mobile telephones that allows them to communicate even in the absence of phone towers and other supporting infrastructures. The phones communicate directly with one another. With enough phones running their software, it would be possible to get affordable mobile phone coverage in remote places in the world.

However, sometimes, unusual situations call for usual measures. Anahi Ayala Lacucci from InterNews presented their way of adapting to the local conditions. Apart from the lack of electricity and internet, they are concerned about security in using mobile technology. Not only did many of their phones get stolen in a very short amount of time, but also some of the interviewed people were uncomfortable with the use of mobile phones while being interviewed. Anahi presented their Humanitarian Data Toolkit, consisting of a laptop, wifi modem, Android phones and a mini scanner. That way they can decide in the field whether they want to use mobile phone technology, or paper based surveys combined with word recognition. With their approach they were not trying to reinvent the wheel but come up with a solution that would work in a specific environment. At first I found it quite brave to present a paper based survey method at a mobile data collection workshop. But then I ended up liking it, because in my opinion “fit for purpose” is the way to go.

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