BACKGROUND: Personal digital assistants (PDAs) have been shown to reduce costs associated with survey implementation and digitisation, and to improve data quality when compared to traditional paper based data collection. Few studies, however, have shared their experiences of the use of these devices in rural settings in Asia. This paper reports on our experiences of using a PDA device for data collection in Sri Lanka as part of a large cluster randomised control trial.
FINDINGS: We found that PDAs were useful for collecting data for a baseline survey of a large randomised control trial (54,000 households). We found that the PDA device and survey format was easy to use by inexperienced field staff, even though the survey was programmed in English. The device enabled the rapid digitisation of survey data, providing a good basis for continuous data quality assurance, supervision of staff and survey implementation. An unexpected advantage was the improved community opinion of the research project as a result of the device, because the use of the technology gave data collectors an elevated status amongst the community. In addition the global positioning system (GPS) functionality of the device allowed precise mapping of households, and hence distinct settlements to be identified as randomisation clusters. Future users should be mindful that to save costs the piloting should be completed before programming. In addition consideration of a local after-care service is important to avoid costs and time delays associated with sending devices back to overseas providers.
DISCUSSION: Since the start of this study, PDA devices have rapidly developed and are increasingly used. The use of PDA or similar devices for research is not without its problems; however we believe that the universal lessons learnt as part of this study are even more important for the effective utilisation of these rapidly developing technologies in resource poor settings.
- Centre for Surgical Research