How Mobile Surveys are Democratizing Data Collection in Africa

10.26.2017 | Hanna Wetters



Mobile networks are revamping African infrastructure. While increasing connectivity is creating opportunities for economic growth and social inclusion, the digital economy will be hard-pressed to deliver on these opportunities through connectivity alone.

Businesses and governments need access to information about what stakeholders think, want, and need. This information allows businesses and governments to define and fill existing gaps in policy and service delivery in order to take advantage of opportunities presented by the digital economy. In the past, poor infrastructure made it expensive to collect this information, but mobile phones are reshaping the landscape.

Surveys administered via mobile phone are lowering the barriers to data collection by providing cheaper, faster ways to conduct public opinion research. In doing so, they can be an effective tool to increase access to information for small business and civil society groups, allowing these groups to take a greater leadership role in developing services and proposing policy solutions.

What are some advantages of mobile surveys?

Mobile surveys are short questionnaires administered via pre-recorded voice, SMS, or web by mobile survey companies such as VOTO Mobile or GeoPoll. They take less time to develop and administer than a paper survey and tend to be considerably less expensive.

For a recent mobile survey in Ghana sponsored by the Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE), it took approximately four weeks to translate the nine questions into seven different languages, administer the survey, and receive the raw data. In contrast, a similar project takes a minimum of seven weeks when administering the survey in person. The ability to cheaply translate questions into multiple languages and use voice recordings also grants access to frequently underrepresented groups, such as those who speak a minority language or individuals who are semi-literate.

Implications for small business development and democracy

In the past, barriers to data collection—such as poor infrastructure and the amount of time it takes to travel to remote regions—limited access to data collection to only large organizations that could pay for professional surveys. Traditional survey administration was limited to paper surveys, which are time-consuming to distribute and difficult to collect. Alternately, organizations conducting national surveys could deploy teams across the country to interview respondents and record their responses. The cost of these approaches made conducting large public opinion surveys out of reach to all but a few academic projects, such as Afrobarometer, consulting firms, and governments. Providing access to public opinion data through mobile surveys is democratizing access to this information, making it easier for organizations operating at local or regional levels to identify areas for improvement and make decisions supported by data.

For businesses, understanding consumer preferences guide product and service development. Conducting surveys on product usage can lead to the discovery of new customer segments or help a company understand how to improve its service offerings. Access to this information makes it easier for small and growing businesses to quickly learn and adapt to changing markets, giving them a competitive advantage over big business and imported goods.

Increasing access to data on public opinion is equally important for democracy. Crafting and implementing policies that respond to people’s priorities is critical to establishing trust in a democratic system. When governments deliver services that address stakeholder needs, voters have reason to believe the system will continue to work going forward. Creating policies that address what people want and need remains a barrier to inclusive development in Africa, but initiatives to improve public policies are receiving increasing attention. The Group of Twenty (G-20), an international forum for the world’s 20 leading governments, recently launched a “Compact with Africa” to improve the conditions for private investment at the country and sectoral level.

Civil society and private sector groups have an important role to play in filling policy gaps and could provide further leadership in policy identification and advocacy by employing mobile surveys. These groups connect constituent interests to policymakers by developing policy recommendations based on local needs and bringing recommendations to local and national governments. Mobile surveys stand to increase the ability of these groups to quickly identify needs and provide data-based evidence to advocate changes in policy or regulations.

Room to grow

Sub-Saharan Africa’s mobile market is the fastest growing in the world. While not every country currently has a mobile penetration rate high enough to warrant conducting a mobile survey, the growing number of mobile users will provide further opportunities for data collection in the coming years.

In Ghana and South Africa, more than 65 percent of people have access to a cell phone, and across the continent, mobile penetration is expected to reach 50 percent by 2020. While the region’s rate of mobile usage remains lower than the global average, mobile technology is increasingly integrated into daily life, and the social benefits are impressive. Mobile platforms are providing unprecedented access to banking, money transfers, and education across the continent.

Mobile surveys face several limitations

Mobile surveys are not without their flaws. First, they are biased towards cell-phone owners, who tend to be younger, more educated English-speakers. This leads to the over-representation of these groups in the results. Since the value of survey data comes from segmentation, or how well analysts can differentiate preferences between groups within the sample, there is little to be gained if a survey fails to accurately represent a population. Fortunately, it is possible to control for this bias. Including demographic questions and requiring a larger number of responses from difficult-to-reach populations, such as women and the elderly, then reweighting the results to construct a representative sample is a way to control for the bias.

The second limitation poses a more serious concern: mobile surveys must be short, in some cases no more than 10 to 15 questions. This places a ceiling on how much information it is possible to collect in a single survey. It is difficult to combat survey fatigue via mobile because there is no way to monitor when respondents start to disengage from the survey. During an in-person interview or live phone survey, interviewers continuously assure respondents the survey is nearly complete. In contrast, when respondents become tired or frustrated during a mobile survey, they will typically end the call after 15 minutes.

Given the time constraint and need to include demographic questions, there are approximately 5 to 10 questions remaining for data collection. This makes it more difficult to address a variety of topics and approach the topic of interest from multiple angles. Insights on public opinion arise by identifying divergences in the responses within or between groups. Surveys try to distinguish among these disjunctions by asking the same question with slight modifications in the wording, or the question’s placement within the survey. The limited number of questions makes mobile surveys less flexible in this regard. Some survey companies are working to circumvent this by sending multiple short surveys to a selected group. It can still be difficult to get respondents to completely answer each wave of the survey.

The final consideration is skill. Mobile surveys are a tool, and in order to make the most of the investment, it is important for an organization or business to know how to put the tool to the best use. Understanding how to design a valid, powerful survey is essential to gain real insight into public opinion. To achieve this, organizations and businesses must determine what they want the survey to accomplish, and design questions that encourage respondents to accurately report their opinions. It is equally important to understand data analysis and presentation in order to effectively use the survey results. While mobile survey companies assist with survey design and data analysis, groups thinking about using a mobile survey would do well to develop their understanding of these areas to ensure the data accurately reflect their area of interest.

For more information on polling and survey design, visit CIPE’s online Tech for Democracy course.

Due to the constraints inherent to mobile surveys, they may not be appropriate for every context, especially when trying to acquire a lot of data about a diverse group. That said, targeting a specific group or customer segment with a short, well-designed survey can provide significant insights about policies, products, and services.

While still a developing industry, mobile surveys have the potential to be a powerful tool for advocacy and business development in Africa. Increasing access to information about stakeholder and consumer preferences effectively democratize data collection, putting the ability to collect data in the hands of people with local knowledge who previously did not have access. This opens doors for developing evidence-based policies and receiving feedback from constituents and consumers alike—both key components to furthering democratic development.

Look for next week’s blog post about a CIPE-sponsored mobile survey that provides insights into Ghanaians’ top policy priorities.

Hanna Wetters is the Program Assistant for Africa at the Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE).