Mobile Phone Surveys Transform Data Collection
December 8, 2020
In early 2020, the world watched COVID-19 spread across borders and circle the globe. One crucial area of CDC’s COVID-19 response included assisting partner countries with disease surveillance and supporting data collection.
Surveillance is an important part of learning more about diseases, especially new diseases — how they spread, and who is most at risk. Disease surveillance can also help guide response plans and identify ways to prevent future outbreaks. Before COVID-19, gathering this type of information in low and middle-income countries was often done in person, in clinics or through house-to-house surveys.
Due to how rapidly COVID-19 spread across the world, infectious disease experts had to find a way to quickly gather and analyze a lot of data across populations, without putting communities and “disease detectives” at risk. One method that met all the criteria was mobile phone surveys (MPS).
Mobile Phones and Technology Increase Access to Information
In the early 2000s, few people in developing countries could access mobile technology. Ten years later, as mobile phones and data plans became more affordable, households in these same countries were more likely to have access to a mobile phone than to clean water or electricity.1 Today, it is estimated that more than 5 billion people — or roughly two-thirds of the world’s population — have access to technology like cell phones and smartphones,2 though that access may not be distributed equally.
For every 100 people in the world, there are 107 mobile phone subscriptions
As a result of this growth, mobile phone surveys presented a fast and affordable way to gather accurate health data and monitor disease trends. Automated surveys can use text messages, voice calls, or mobile web to reach people, and messaging can be changed easily to fit local needs. In places where MPS have been used before, teams could develop and roll out COVID-19-related surveys quickly through existing survey networks and templates. New projects were easier in areas where people were already somewhat familiar with the process, since communities needed less support to access and respond to surveys. Examples from Sri Lanka and Ecuador highlight how these two countries benefitted from applying existing MPS networks for data collection during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Sri Lanka and Ecuador Expand Surveillance through Mobile Phone Surveys
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, CDC’s Global Noncommunicable Diseases Surveillance Team worked with the Bloomberg Data for Health Initiative to gather health data in several countries through mobile phone surveys. In Sri Lanka and Ecuador, the CDC Surveillance Team responded to public health officials’ pandemic support requests by repurposing current MPS frameworks for national COVID-19 surveys.
“We never get real-time feedback, so our decisions are based on what some people have told us or complained about. This time, we had the opportunity to get population feedback on the medicine delivery service.”
– Dr. S.C. Wickramasinghe, Deputy Director General (NCD), Ministry of Health, Nutrition and Indigenous Medicine, Sri Lanka
In Sri Lanka, when COVID-19 meant that patients with noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) like cancer, diabetes, and cardiovascular and chronic lung diseases couldn’t leave their homes, the government set up a medicine delivery system. This system aimed to make sure patients did not run out of their medication; however, officials were not able to gauge system effectiveness without performing home visits. By using an existing survey network and updating earlier surveys on tobacco use, blood pressure, diabetes, and diet, mobile phone surveys provided a quick, convenient, and safe tool to assess a new medicine delivery service during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“COVID-19 mobile phone survey results have provided the MOH with strategic inputs to reinforce and continue with the support of national and local health and social stakeholders in this pandemic response.”
– Dr. Xavier Solórzano, Vice-Minister of Health in Ecuador
In Ecuador, the Ministry of Health (MOH) adapted the CDC and Bloomberg Philanthropies NCD data collection mobile phone surveys to learn about people’s COVID-19 knowledge, practices, common symptoms, and testing availability. Ministry staff then used survey results to implement ¡Yo Me Cuido! (“I take care of myself”), a health campaign communicating guidelines for preventing infection and spread of COVID-19. The MOH also shared survey results with other organizations working to protect people’s health and well-being, such as health professionals, national and local emergency response committees, local governments, and non-governmental organizations.
Due to CDC’s support, the health ministries in Sri Lanka and Ecuador were able to quickly plan, design, and implement national surveys to collect real-time feedback during the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition to evaluating and improving programming, these surveys provided key information that will help develop future pandemic response guidelines.
Public health officials in both Sri Lanka and Ecuador expressed interest in launching more mobile phone surveys to gather COVID-19 data. As the global pandemic response continues, CDC experts will keep supporting COVID-19-specific mobile phone surveys and helping partner countries use innovative data collection methods to protect the health and well-being of their people.
- World Bank Group, 2016. Digital Dividends: World Development Report. [online] Available at: https://openknowledge.worldbank.org/bitstream/handle/10986/23347/9781464806711.pdfpdf iconexternal icon [Accessed 6 October 2020].
- Silver, L., 2020. Smartphone Ownership Is Growing Rapidly Around The World, But Not Always Equally. [online] Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project. Available at: https://www.pewresearch.org/global/2019/02/05/smartphone-ownership-is-growing-rapidly-around-the-world-but-not-always-equally/external icon [Accessed 6 October 2020].