I attended a great course last month on mixed methods evaluation techniques for humanitarian programs at the Harvard Humanitarian Academy. One of the most useful things I got out of the course (aside from a copy of this primer on mixed methods research designs) was a stronger sense of the types of survey software that are available for mixed-methods research.
The star of the show was definitely KoBoToolbox. This free software was developed in partnership with researchers at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, and consequently is well suited to research in places without steady electricity or internet access. We played around with the online form builder, which was incredibly easy to use, but surveys can also be designed and deployed to Android devices offline. Once data has been collected, it can be synced to a local computer running any operating system. The software also has some very useful functionalities beyond standard survey design, like collection of geospatial data and an option for integrating audio recordings into quantitative questionnaires. The latter makes it a useful tool for organizing qualitative interviews – you could create a form to automatically track the date and location of the interview, and add other meta questions at the end (like the presence of other people, or whether the respondent seemed comfortable with the questions).
KoBo is one of a number of survey softwares built on Google’s workhorse program Open Data Kit. ODK is free and open-source (Android only), with many of the same functions as KoBo, but according to other participants in the HHA course, the survey builder isn’t as easy to use. Other paid services which are also built on ODK include SurveyCTO (which is used by IPA) and Enketo. I haven’t looked into these options as much, but I believe they offer assistance with tech support and possibly database management. SurveyCTO is also Android-based, while Enketo is platform independent.
The other two softwares in use at IPA are Surveybe and Blaise. These are both paid, Windows-based services. Surveybe sounds like it’s pretty similar to the ODK-based programs above, in terms of ease of programming. Blaise is the heavy hitter of the survey software world. There’s a very steep learning curve to the programming, but it’s capable of handling more complex survey designs than any of the others here. (For example, the first project I worked on with IPA used Blaise to preload baseline data on farmers’ fields and crops into the midline questionnaire. I’m pretty sure none of the other programs here could do that.)
Finally, hardware. Everyone I’ve spoken to who’s deployed any of the Android-based programs has used Samsung Galaxy tablets for it. I’ve got the 7″ version, which is quite portable but still large enough to comfortably type on. The battery life is also good; it can be used for at least eight hours straight without charging. When I was doing some consulting for a mixed methods evaluation in the DRC earlier this summer, we planned to send the survey teams out with these tablets and 6-watt solar chargers from Voltaic. The other interesting hardware recommendation that came out of the HHA course was the Livescribe recording pen, which is a functional pen with an audio recorder inside. A bit specialized for most researchers’ purposes, I think, but the course leader recommended it for qualitative interviews where the presence of a more obvious recording device might make people uncomfortable. (No comment on its suitability for surreptitiously recording politicians doing shady things.)