Improving the quality of data collection through SurveyCTO

Chintan is a Research Trainee at Outline India. He has worked as a Research Assistant at the Swiss Institute for International Economics and Applied Economic Research at the University of St.Gallen. Chintan holds an MA in Economics from the University of St.Gallen, Switzerland, an MSc in Entrepreneurship from EMLYON Business School, France and a Bachelors in Commerce from Gujarat University.

Quality and efficient data collection is the most important constituent of research. With the increasing use of Information and Communication Technology, data collection has also moved to the digital platform and offers advanced techniques to optimize data collection and processing. SurveyCTO is one such software platform that provides the ability to design sophisticated surveys and collect data through Android based tablets/smartphones.

SurveyCTO has been designed for anyone with no or limited programming skills, to build complex survey forms in Microsoft Excel. The SurveyCTO website offers templates to easily get started on incorporating your survey into the platform. Their website also has exhaustive instruction manuals that guide the researcher to easily build the survey form. The designed survey forms are then downloaded on the Android device by the surveyor, who uses these forms to collect data and sends filled forms back to the researcher. Internet access is required only for downloading or uploading survey forms and not during data collection, a feature that supports collection in areas with limited network. The survey data then can directly be downloaded from the platform in multiple formats, including Comma Separated Files (.csv) and Microsoft Excel sheets (.xls).

There are three major advantages of using a Computer Assisted Personal Interview (CAPI) software such as SurveyCTO:

The first is ease in data collection and processing. Tablet based surveys help circumvent issues of quality that arise when paper based survey tools are used. It minimizes human error on account of manual data entry and the turn around time is reduced by massive margins. The completed survey forms, once uploaded to the drive, can be easily collated into a data sheet. The second prime advantage is that this allows for better monitoring and control over data collection processes. For example, SurveyCTO includes features that allow for clicking of pictures, recording survey locations based on GPS positioning, calculate survey durations etc. Finally, CAPI software’s allow vast flexibilities in simplifying the data collection process. These include among others, the ability to set skip patterns that skip or ask questions based on defined logic criteria, to set field input constraints, to provide auto-input of values, and to restrict single or multiple selection options. In addition to these, SurveyCTO provides automatic data encryption, both when data is being uploaded to the server and downloaded from it, ensuring safety of sensitive information.


The image shows how SurveyCTO directly shows a numeric keypad for a field defined to accept integers only. An additional constraint restricting the input number of family size, is set between 1 and 15. Invalid responses such as negative entries or symbols (* @ #) will display an error, thus not allowing the surveyor to continue.

Technology incorporation in field work has its fair share of quirks. Tablets and smart-phones, compared to paper, are expensive and owing to rough usage may get damaged or lost. Software’s do crash and losing survey data during a survey is a harsh possibility. In remote areas, where power is a luxury or largely unavailable, charging devices is also a constraint. Often, qualitative questions must be converted to allow for quantitative responses, to avoid typing which is both time taking and difficult on tablets without physical keypads. Additional training also becomes necessary for field workers to teach them the ins and outs of the software. Although the adoption of smartphones has smoothened this learning curve and SurveyCTO’s app is very simple, the researcher has to exercise caution and make sure the survey design is error-free and that the collection device is in a good condition to minimize critical field based errors.

There are other electronic data collection software’s available, most importantly the Open Data Kit (ODK), a platform that SurveyCTO builds on. But when making a decision about what software to use, one needs to consider the customer support that comes with the product. In our experience, SurveyCTO excels here. The company offers affordable monthly plans, which combined with a powerful product and excellent customer service is a great package. To cite our experience, we reached out to the team on multiple occasions and received helpful commentary with minimal response time.

Although CAPI software’s may not completely replace paper survey and manual data collection, especially for qualitative research, they are still a very attractive option for researchers, academics and monitoring agencies looking to collect high quality data in an efficient and streamlined manner.

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