Climatology on Fiji: How mobile survey technology still works in spite of difficult infrastructure
Posted July 10, 2013
Comprehensive internet access, reliable mobile communications networks and a secure electricity supply - we only learn to truly appreciate these achievements when they are gone. What can we, as people spoiled by technology, do to research the effects of climate change in regions where the technological infrastructure is anything but reliable?
Comprehensive internet access, reliable mobile communications networks and a secure electricity supply – we only learn to truly appreciate these achievements of our age, now taken for granted, when they are gone; both in our private lives and even more so in our occupations. Even in the field of ecological research and climatology, research teams often have to endure such adversity – field work often takes place in poorly developed regions that are difficult to access.
But what can we, as people spoiled by technology, do to research the effects of climate change in regions where the technological infrastructure is anything but reliable? The research institute Landcare Research from New Zealand had this very problem. It faced the question of whether to carry out a very complex study with either traditional means or modern technology. Both methods had their risks.
It was necessary to find a largely self-sufficient technology that did not depend on the internet and that would allow for a highly complex survey which would not have been feasible with traditional pen-and-paper. Pike Brown, Senior Economist at Landcare Research, opted for German technology to implement the project: the mobile survey software mQuest, developed by cluetec GmbH. For its hardware, Landcare Research used Samsung Galaxy 10.1 tablets with Android operating systems.
Climatology at the end of the world
Fiji is situated around 2,100 kilometres north of New Zealand. The archipelago consists of 332 islands, of which 110 are inhabited. Most of the population on Fiji lives in the city regions, but some people do also live in remote villages.
From February to March this year, Landcare Research carried out a study on the effects of climate change on Fiji, together with the Institute of Applied Science of the University of the South Pacific. This study was designed to understand the impact of natural disasters on the life of the population.
In the past, the inhabitants of the archipelago suffered particularly frequent severe natural disasters such as Face-to-face survey using mQuest storm tides, floods and storms. Combined with geographic data (GIS), the researchers now want to use the survey to help create risk profiles for Fiji and in doing so, better assess the risk of future catastrophes.
Due to the lack of internet access, mobile communications networks and a secure electricity supply in wide regions of Fiji, the project required the most self-sufficient equipment possible: it was therefore of decisive advantage that the survey could be carried out fully independent of an internet connection. All information, interviews and images collected had to be saved on the tablets and transferred to the institute’s server at the end of the field work. From this point on, the collected results were available for final analysis.
Providing electricity for the tablets was tricky. It was necessary to plan the resources and procedures precisely, in order to avoid running the risk of going dark in the middle of the survey and losing valuable survey time and resources. In the accommodation during the evenings, the top priority was to charge up the batteries. ‘This type of project requires precise planning’, says Pike Brown, ‘and it is extremely important that you can rely on your tools 100 per cent. Fortunately, at least there was no risk of losing the data since the software would have stored it even if the batteries did run dry.’
2,500 possible data points overtaxing the clipboard
Most socioeconomic studies are extremely complicated and consist of question concepts with highly complex logic and validation. Even in this regard the project proved a challenge for the researchers: the questionnaire, consisting of a total of 15 different forms, was comprised of 2,500 individual data points.
The study was to cover 400 households, many of which were situated in particularly remote villages. A large number of conditional questions also meant that jumping backwards and forwards in the survey was inevitable.
This would simply not have been possible for a surveyor with pen-and-paper and this number of questions – the high probability of error notwithstanding. The logic programmed in advance ensured an efficient ‘flow’ through the questionnaire. Integrated plausibility checks ensured a high level of data quality and fewer input errors.
The majority of the project workers were doing this work for the first time, but nevertheless the training process proved very simple. The interviewers were greatly impressed by the easy portability of the questionnaire during field work: ‘The unanimous feedback from the field was exceedingly positive. We used the paper forms to train all of our workers at the start. They were all delighted about the switch to the tablets and could appreciate how much easier their work had become thanks to the software-assisted questionnaire’, explains Pike Brown.
Pike Brown also sees the quick availability of data and user-friendly questionnaire corrections as advantages of the software- and tablet-assisted survey method: ‘There is now absolutely no time-consuming data input at the end of the study and this represents a significant improvement over the traditional method. We also particularly liked the fact that we could change and correct questions on the move without having to fully redesign and print the questionnaire.’
Success for the future and improved data quality
‘This was a pilot project for us and we are very happy with the solution. However, thanks to our experience we also know that future projects will offer even more potential savings in terms of time and money. Programming the comprehensive and complex questionnaire in the initial project stages was very time-consuming, but we were able to save a third of the time by filling out the questionnaire faster.’ The lack of data input also saved time and money. As the questionnaires no longer needed to be printed out, this also represented a saving.
Landcare Research considers the improved data quality to be the greatest advantage: ‘I estimate that the number of input errors has fallen by at least 50 percent’, says Pike Brown.
‘Also, since we had the data to hand at the end of each day, we were able to make corrections on site.’ Overall, this allowed 80 per cent of errors to be corrected during the field work.
No return to pen-and-paper
For the future, Landcare Research plans to continue expanding the use of mobile survey technology and to use it to carry out more projects.
‘The comfort of the technology completely won us over and a return to pencil and paper simply no longer makes sense. By now, we have already become so used to the advantages that we won’t do without it’, concludes Pike Brown.
About Landcare Research, New Zealand
One of eight Crown Research Institutes (CRIs), Landcare Research’s core purpose is to drive innovation in the management of terrestrial biodiversity and land resources. Their goal is to both protect and enhance the land environment and grow the country’s prosperity. CRIs were formed in 1992 as independent companies that are owned by, and accountable to, the New Zealand Government. Shareholders are the Minister of Finance and Minister of Science and Innovation of New Zealand. Landcare Research has approximately 380 staff at nine locations across New Zealand, including a subsidiary, carboNZeroCertTM at Lincoln and Auckland. Landcare Research collaborates extensively with other research organisations in New Zealand and around the world. www.landcareresearch.co.nz
cluetec GmbH is an IT specialist for mobile software solutions. The company was founded in 2000 with headquarters in Karlsruhe, Germany and currently employs 40 staff. cluetec develops and distributes mQuest®, the leading mobile survey software for market and opinion research and traffic research. Since 2011 the catalogueapp, an application for displaying digital product catalogues on tablet devices, complements the product portfolio of cluetec. In addition, the company offers custom software development for mobile solutions, Java EE and Web 2.0 for market research and industry. Customers of cluetec include companies from the automotive industry such as ZF Friedrichshafen, Peugeot and Volkswagen, as well as leading market research institutes such as GfK and TNS Infratest.