Smartphone and tablets have improved our ability to communicate with one another and connect to the world.  From a handheld device, we can surf the internet, check emails, download (and upload) videos, use social media, play games, and share photos with friends.

What makes a Smartphone “smart” is the use of software applications or“apps”. An app is a form of computer software that can be downloaded to your Smartphone or tablet from an online server, i.e. from the internet, or an offline server, i.e. from an intranet or a host computer.  Games, webmail services, and social networks, such as Facebook and Twitter, are among the more common apps that are downloaded and run on smartphones or tablets.[1]

In recent years, dedicated apps have been developed and piloted for election observation and crowdsourcing data collection purposes.  For Egypt’s 2012 presidential election, the Carter Center (TCC) created a reporting app for election observers to transmit findings. In Russia, the internet search engine company Yandex developed a smartphone app to crowdsource reports regarding the voting process during the 2012 presidential elections.

To facilitate these kinds of data collection efforts, many open source customizable tools have been developed, including Formhub, Open Data Kit (ODK), and Kobo Toolbox. These and other toolkits feature apps that can be deployed for data collection purposes and customized to meet the research needs of the user firm or organization. TCC customized the ODK toolkit to develop its tablet app in Egypt (I’ll talk more about this in my next post).

As smartphones and tablets become less expensive and more common, apps will become increasingly useful for election observation data collection purposes.  Using smartphone and tablet apps for data collection provides many benefits:

  1. Real-time reporting: similar to SMS reporting systems, reporting apps allow observers to send reports via the internet provided that a connection is available.  Note: even If an internet connection is not available, observers can save the forms and data collected and send them once a connection is available (like a draft SMS).
  2. Error reduction: Apps can be developed to look like paper checklists so reporting can be done by an observer ticking a box with his or her finger or using the keypad to write a quick description. This can help to reduce common data transmission mistakes, such as phone operators making recoding mistakes, data clerks to making data entry errors, and observers misreporting via SMS systems that use long complicated strings of code.
  3. Geolocation: Smartphones and tablets support the Global Positioning System (GPS) feature enabling observers (and, in turn, their findings) to be located automatically with a great deal of accuracy. This makes it possible to verify the location of observer, connect findings to specific locations, and facilitate the visualization of observer data on maps.
  4. Instructions: Although observers should be trained on how to use any reporting system, they may forget some details or technicalities. With an app, it is possible to include instructions, reminders and tips to guide reporting and ensure greater quality control.
  5. Photos and videos: Observers can use in-built cameras to take photos and document irregularities to correspond with their findings.  Even if the reporting app itself does not allow for photos or videos to be attached, there are other apps that could be used to send photos to the same database used to collect observer findings or directly onto a map (I’ll talk about Completure in a future post).

Although using reporting apps comes with these benefits, you need to consider the following before deciding on whether to use an app for data collection:

  1. Limited Usage: While the number of smartphone users is increasing, smartphones still represent justa fraction of all mobile phones in use.  And just because someone has a smartphone doesn’t mean that he or she uses it to connect to the internet or use apps. Before deciding on whether to use an app for data collection purposes, you should do your homework regarding the smartphone users within your observation mission.
  2. Coverage: Most remote and rural areas, especially in less developed countries, do not have internet coverage whether GSM, WiFi or satellite. Limited or weak coverage may mitigate the benefit of using an app for real-time reporting since observers may not be able to send reports until they can travel to a coverage area. Before developing an app, you should review maps provided by telecommunications providers to identify the coverage areas and gaps that may exist.
  3. Cost-Efficiency: Developing a dedicated app for reporting purposes may not be the best use of your financial resources, especially if smartphone or tablet users represent just a fraction of your observers.  Using open source tools can help to reduce costs, but if you don’t have the technical capacity in-house, you will need to incur costs related to customization and integration.  You should perform a cost-benefit analysis to make a determination as to whether it makes sense to develop an app.
  4. Compatibility: Unless all your observers use the same type of smartphone or tablet, you may need to be developed multiple apps to accommodate different operating systems, i.e. Android, iOS, Blackberry, Symbian, etc.  This will have financial implications that may alter your cost-benefit analysis.
  5. Battery: The battery life of smartphones or tablets is generally shorter than a regular phone, often lasting for less just a few to several hours depending on usage.  If observers are unable to charge their smartphones or tablets, they may not be able to access the reporting app at all let alone send in their findings.

In sum, the use of smartphone and tablet apps for reporting purposes can improve speed and accuracy, but you will need to weight the practicality and costs of doing so.

In future posts, we’ll provide case studies of how apps have been developed and used in election observation as well as information on existing tools that can be used and customized for observation purposes.

[1]Apps are sometimes incorrectly used for any icon placed on a Smartphone’s screen. At first glance, an app and a mobile website could like very similar. However, the difference basically lies in the fact that a mobile website is just another normal website that has been optimised for mobile browsing and designed for touch-screen interface and smaller display for smaller portable devices. On the other hand, an app is software, as stated above, which is developed in the native language of a specific platform. A platform in a nutshell is a virtual place from which to launch software.