The use of personal digital assistants for data entry at the point of collection in a large household survey in southern Tanzania
BACKGROUND:Survey data are traditionally collected using pen-and-paper, with double data entry, comparison of entries and reconciliation of discrepancies before data cleaning can commence. We used Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs) for data entry at the point of collection, to save time and enhance the quality of data in a survey of over 21,000 scattered rural households in southern Tanzania.METHODS:Pendragon Forms 4.0 software was used to develop a modular questionnaire designed to record information on household residents, birth histories, child health and health-seeking behaviour. The questionnaire was loaded onto Palm m130 PDAs with 8 Mb RAM. One hundred and twenty interviewers, the vast majority with no more than four years of secondary education and very few with any prior computer experience, were trained to interview using the PDAs. The 13 survey teams, each with a supervisor, laptop and a four-wheel drive vehicle, were supported by two back-up vehicles during the two months of field activities. PDAs and laptop computers were charged using solar and in-car chargers.Logical checks were performed and skip patterns taken care of at the time of data entry. Data records could not be edited after leaving each household, to ensure the integrity of the data from each interview. Data were downloaded to the laptop computers and daily summary reports produced to evaluate the completeness of data collection. Data were backed up at three levels: (i) at the end of every module, data were backed up onto storage cards in the PDA; (ii) at the end of every day, data were downloaded to laptop computers; and (iii) a compact disc (CD) was made of each team's data each day.A small group of interviewees from the community, as well as supervisors and interviewers, were asked about their attitudes to the use of PDAs.RESULTS:Following two weeks of training and piloting, data were collected from 21,600 households (83,346 individuals) over a seven-week period in July-August 2004. No PDA-related problems or data loss were encountered.Fieldwork ended on 26 August 2004, the full dataset was available on a CD within 24 hours and the results of initial analyses were presented to district authorities on 28 August. Data completeness was over 99%.The PDAs were well accepted by both interviewees and interviewers.CONCLUSION:The use of PDAs eliminated the usual time-consuming and error-prone process of data entry and validation. PDAs are a promising tool for field research in Africa.