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EMIS opportunities and challenges for mobile data collection and dissemination

Shem Bodo

One of the measures of an efficient education management information system (EMIS) is the extent to which returns from school censuses and surveys are accurate, timely and up-to-date. This is important for any state in terms of proper allocation of per-capita funding to schools, effective monitoring of learner enrolments and attendance, addressing emerging institutional issues, and providing appropriate information to support planning.

Traditionally, collecting EMIS data in the field is still largely paper-based, with increasing use of email and web-based modes in the dissemination and transmission of questionnaires. However, the significant growth continuously being experienced in the mobile and wireless technologies calls for a paradigm shift in governments’ educational planning strategy, to start thinking of investing more into these technologies as alternative or complementary tools to EMIS.

According to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU, 2010), the share of total mobile subscriptions in the developing world increased by one fifth between 2005 and 2010, to stand at 73%. In Africa, penetration rates were projected to reach an estimated 41% at the end of 2010 (compared to 76% globally) leaving a significant potential for growth. And the 2011 Horizon Report (Johnson et al., 2011) places mobile devices as a top technology to watch for in the coming year, occupying the same level as electronic books, in the six featured technologies. And the market has a host of different mobile devices, operating systems, applications and accessories – all with different capabilities, against a backdrop of issues relating to communication coverage, infrastructure and equipment, bandwidth as well as usage costs.

Laptop computers and handheld devices such as Personal Data Assistants (PDAs) and mobile telephones (smart phones) have the potential to improve the collection and dissemination of EMIS data and information. Possibilities of integrating such systems with advanced communications systems such as mobile Geographic Information System (GIS) combined with Global Positioning System (GPS) technology can also be explored.

Technology is also important in educational planning during and after emergencies as PDAs and mobile phones can be used to collect data, often in challenging circumstances. For example, they can be combined with GPS to help in locating affected schools and in school mapping. Additionally, data collectors can communicate directly with head teachers via email or text message during such situations, and the head teacher can send the requested data to the data collector’s PDA or smart phone (IIEP, 2009).

Emerging trends and best practice examples in EMIS

It appears that limited research has so far been conducted on the potential of wireless technology for educational use in developing countries. And although the scope and coverage in the collection and dissemination of EMIS data can be improved using web services and wireless technologies, widespread use is yet to be realised, possibly due to the ‘newness and unexplored capacity’ of this technology – in terms of the collection, processing and dissemination of significantly large amounts of educational data – and the challenges that would characterise its use. However, there are some success stories, especially in Africa, relating directly to education.

Based on their research work, Dias and others (2010) found that the use of short message service or text message (SMS) coupled with several open-source tools on mobile phones by para-social workers in Tanzania enabled them to report summary data on orphans and vulnerable children (OVCs) to relevant government officials in a cost-effective and efficient manner.

A project launched in Kenya – and supported by the UK Department for International Development (DfID) – lobbied policy-makers, technologists and educationists to support the development of a targeted bulk SMS system for in-service teacher training, and explored the possibility of running much of the country’s schools’ statistical returns off SMS (Traxler and Dearden, 2005). The project’s initial exploratory results concluded that SMS is a viable and innovative technology for improving EMIS operations in Kenya. For example, mobile phones in each school could be used and head teachers would send a standard format message each week, perhaps giving pupil numbers by age and gender, to a specified phone number.

From mobiles4dev, the University of Jyvaskyla in Finland reports that it conducted a pilot study on the use of mobile phones to collect EMIS school-based data in Ghana. The study covered 35 head teachers and 21 education statisticians from two districts in the Ashanti Region. They demonstrated how mobile phones could be used to gather faster, easier, simple, cost effective and reliable school-based data for educational planning.

The Ministry of Education and Sports in Uganda tasked the Agile Learning Company in 2010 to design and develop a new decentralized national EMIS covering 81 existing districts, and 17 newly created districts. The Uganda project, whose implementation will continue into 2012, also covers the piloting of a school-based EMIS application in selected schools for the purpose of reviewing its ability to enhance school management and link critical school data directly from schools into the national EMIS-GIS.

Rwanda’s Ministry of Education also contracted the same company in 2009 to develop a similar solution for the country’s schools and universities. And its National Examinations Council tasked the company in 2008 to develop a registration and SMS-based online results management information system – the latter enabling students to query the database by SMS for their examination results. A similar initiative is proving effective in Kenya where the government has partnered with local mobile service providers. The software has also been successfully piloted in countries such as Mauritius, Botswana and Swaziland.

Tomlinson and others (2009) investigated the feasibility, ease of implementation, and the extent to which community health workers with little experience of data collection could be trained and successfully supervised to collect data using mobile phones in a large baseline survey in Umlazi suburb, South Africa. The project deployed a web-based system that allows electronic surveys or questionnaires to be designed on a word processor, sent to, and used on standard entry level mobile phones. They found out that the benefits of mobile technology, combined with the improvement that mobile phones offer over PDA’s in terms of data loss and uploading difficulties, make mobile phones a feasible method of data collection that needs to be further explored.

Opportunities and challenges, success factors and barriers to wider dissemination and take up

Recognising the great potential of mobile devices for collecting education data in developing countries, the Academy for Educational Development (AED) has created a software package of applications, called GATHER, that can be downloaded to mobile phones, PDAs, laptops or other electronic devices. It enables cost-effective and efficient data collection, analysis and reporting. It can create data collection instruments, immediately transmit data to other devices or databases, and perform data analysis. Such technology has the potential to offer educational planners quick and efficient access to important information – which is especially important in times of emergency.

Innovative programs are also available for collection and dissemination of crucial health, social and political data over mobile devices. One solution, writes Verclas (2009), is Mobile Researcher which allows long, complex surveys to be conducted. A web browser is used to design a survey questionnaire and analyse the data. Already, the application is being used for the collection of baseline data in household surveys, patient interviews and healthcare facility audits. Applications such as this can also be used in EMIS as its effectiveness is evidenced by the number of case studies where it has been used (such as the “Saving Newborn Lives” project in KwaZulu-Natal province of South Africa; the Education Sector Support Programme in Kano, Nigeria; the Philani Mentor Mothers Project in the Western Cape, South Africa; Emergency Relief and Rehabilitation in Zimbabwe and the National Information System for Social Assistance initiative launched in 2011 by Lesotho’s Department of Health and Social Welfare).

Accompanying opportunities with mobile technologies, such as the ones highlighted above, are the challenges. These range from cost and complexity to dynamism, security and lack of adequate resources in the Ministries of Education, especially in the units where EMIS is anchored. For example, mobile handheld devices have limitations such as small bandwidth, small screen display, colour resolution and limited application capabilities.

Africa still lags behind when it comes to fixed (wired) broadband: although subscriptions are increasing, a penetration rate of less than 1% illustrates the challenges that persist in increasing access to high-speed, high-capacity Internet access in the region (ITU, 2010). The good news is that most of these are being overcome by improvements in technology (Vckovski, 1999), making collection, processing and dissemination of large amount of data increasingly possible (Kraak, 2002). With many offered open source solutions, the development of such mobile GIS platforms is also becoming more affordable. And there is also the issue of accuracy: a quantitative evaluation of the accuracy of data collection using mobile phones by Patnaik, Brunskill and Thies (2008) in India revealed error rates of 4.2% for electronic forms, 4.5% for SMS and 0.45% for voice.

Albeit with some limitations such as varied backgrounds and training of participants, the study suggests that some care is needed in deploying electronic interfaces in resource-poor settings. Further, it raises the possibility of using voice as a low-tech, high-accuracy, and cost-effective interface for mobile data collection. Other challenge considerations relate to compatibility, acceptance of electronic signatures and inefficiency in the entire statistical data chain – the latter being core to the quality of EMIS data and information being disseminated and used, whether using mobile technology or not.

However, individual organisational or institutional constraints are factors that are likely to ultimately influence the adoption, or not, of a given technology. Effective policies and legal frameworks, proper ICT infrastructure and equipment, financial and human resources, training, public-private-partnerships and joint collaboration with development partners are some of the critical factors that can bring success in unleashing the untapped but promising potential of mobile technologies in EMIS on the African continent.

Reflections based on experience

Results from surveys undertaken by the Association for the Development of Education in Africa (ADEA) Working Group on Education Management and Policy Support (WGEMPS) on the status of EMIS in most sub-Saharan African countries indicate some progress towards the use of ICT in EMIS operations – e.g. the use of desktop computers and servers, email and internet, as well as availing EMIS data and information on the Ministry websites.

There are also innovative initiatives such the use of optical character recognition (OCR) and mobile laptops in the data collection and capturing processes in few countries such as Gambia and South Africa. Significant progress has been made in putting in place relevant national policies and frameworks that regulate the use of ICT in these countries. However, there is a general weakness in the flexibility of such policies to adapt to the changing environments that match the dynamism of technology – this affects their implementation and enforcement.

Apart from the use of SMS by EMIS personnel in following up on questionnaire returns, and by learners in finding out about their examination registration and performance, there appears to be little experience in the use of mobile and wireless technology within the realm of EMIS in the continent – a position that can be reversed with solid partnerships with the private sector and development partners.

Recommendations to policy makers, regulators and other stakeholders

Against the backdrop of constant evolution, mobile technologies are proving to be useful in EMIS operations, with advantages and limitations when compared to conventional methods. Therefore, even as the relevant stakeholders in the education sector grapple with how best to use these technologies, either to supplement or replace the conventional methods, they must not lose sight of issues such as the application development process, standards in data collection, database integration, accuracy, security and quality of data.

In anticipation of the large quantities of data from the EMIS census and surveys, it is crucial to ascertain the capability of the mobile technologies to be used. For Africa, a successful integration of mobile technologies with EMIS therefore necessitates putting in place effective policies and legal frameworks that are alive to the dynamic nature and yet-to-be-explored potential of these technologies. A robust ICT infrastructure and equipment, coupled with continual capacity building, adequate resourcing, solid partnerships between governments, the private sector and civil societies are also key ingredients, in addition to effective collaboration with funders and development partners, and networking with the rest of the world so as to be in synch with globally-set standards and benefit from global innovations.


Agile Learning Company, Inc. (2010). Agile Selected for Development and Implementation of Uganda Decentralized EMIS-GIS System. Agile Learning News. Retrieved from http://www.agilelearning.com/latest_news.aspx on 15 May 2011.

Barker, A., Krull, G. and Mallinson, B. (undated). A Proposed Theoretical Model for M-Learning Adoption in Developing Countries. Department of Information Systems. Rhodes University, South Africa.

Dias, B. et al. (2010). Using Mobile Phones and Open Source Tools to Empower Social Workers in Tanzania.

Ehow.com. (undated). Use of Mobile Technology in Information Dissemination. Retrieved on 17 May 2011 from http://www.ehow.com/way_5580231_use-mobile-technology-information-dissemination.html.

IIEP. (2009). Guidebook for planning education in emergencies and reconstruction. Chapter 2.8.

ITU. (2010). The World in 2010: The rise of 3G. ICT Facts and Figures. Geneva, Switzerland.

Johnson, L. et al. (2011). The 2011 Horizon Report. Austin, Texas. The New Media Consortium.

Kraak, M. J. (2002). Current trends in visualisation of geographic data with special reference to cartography. Invited paper in Proceedings of the XXIIth INCA Congress Indian National Cartographic Association: Convergence of Imagery Information and Maps. Vol. 22, pp. 319-324.

mobiles4dev. (undated). Education Management Information System (EMIS) School-based Data. Retrieved on 16 May 2011 from http://mobiles4dev.cto.int/areaofpractice/Education.

Patnaik, S., Brunskill, E. and Thies, W. (2008). Evaluating the Accuracy of Data Collection on Mobile Phones: A Study of Forms, SMS, and Voice. MIT and Microsoft Research India.

Tomlinson, M. et al. (2009). The use of mobile phones as a data collection tool: A report from a household survey in South Africa. BMC Medical Informatics and Decision Making. BioMed Central Ltd. Available from http://www.biomedcentral.com/1472-6947/9/51.

Traxler, J. and Dearden, P. (2005). The Potential for Using SMS to Support Learning and Organisation in Sub-Saharan Africa. London. Department for International Development.

Vckovski, A. (1999). Interoperability and spatial information theory: Interoperating Geographic Information Systems.

Verclas, K. (2009). Data collection using mobile phones. Retrieved on 14 May 2011 from http://ictupdate.cta.int/en/Regulars/Techtip/Data-collection-using-mobile-phones.

11 Responses to “EMIS opportunities and challenges for mobile data collection and dissemination”

  1. You've done a very great service in documenting this array of mobile-based EMIS projects. Bravo!

    Among the challenges posed by mobile devices, however (and among the biggest challenges, IMHO) is the fact that mobiles–especially phones–don't render the data useful to school leaders and communities. The small screens, lack of interoperability and processing power, and other problems that you point out, combine to make the phones OK for data upload, but useless for accessing/interpreting/sharing school data.

    Why might downloading/interpreting/sharing be important?

    First, school heads have little incentive in many instances to participate in data-collection efforts. They get zip in return. Especially in systems that are dogged by corruption or poor implementation of per-student funds.

    Second, among the most powerful and direct pay-offs from improved information management in school systems are those that cluster around use of information at the local level. When school heads can compare their schools' circumstances and performance against those in similar social/economic conditions, or others in their regions, or against past conditions and performance, they have dynamic tools for lobbying (and holding accountable) district, provincial and central administrators, and for engaging their communities and parents associations.

  2. agree Ed, mobiles can be auxiliary for fast surveys, info, instructions, exams plans, coordination, but not to deliver an entire content matter, if you recall the student in Syria was so excited he could actually “SMS” his teacher and chat or ask questions. on the other hand, mobiles in the hands of African women did wonders teaching them how to read and write..and in Ushahidi how to mobilize community for disaster management…but mobiles like any other device must be “approached” in schools now as how best to be used and not used…(value for money) as well.

  3. Mohamed Ragheb

    I developed SMS data base system to collect limited sets of school data for specific purposes such as school attendance, authorized persons would receive quick aggregated report upon request in his mobile by sending certain SMS to server. as quality control the school automatically copy the mobile of school supervisor who my randomly audit some schools

  4. This is fascinating and I am very encouraged by the extent to which South Africa is featured here – as a native, I am very encouraged. My own work, on the M-Ubuntu project (www.m-ubuntu.org) uses mobile phones in rural schools to allow learners to review curriculum-felted content, prepare for high stakes exams and collect video, audio and image data for projects.

  5. Saba Musharrif

    Thanks for documenting and sharing this extremely important information.

  6. Charles obiero

    Mobile technology is the fastest means of data collection, instant and cheaper for management use..calling for meetings..indeed it would be the best for EMIS instant information use. The experiences and challenges are there, none theless

  7. use mobile to learn how to clean drinking water with voiceover. we use it and it works in rural areas. remind mothers to go to vaccinations. use airtime to tell where is malaria. to tell about road accidents.

    • Yes, mobile phones can be used for many things, but let us bring the conversation back to its use in EMIS. In that use, I echo Ed's worry about an over-reliance on mobiles as a data collection tool, forgetting that for good data collection, you need to have motivated data collectors. I do not see headmasters or teachers reviewing EMIS stats (student, grade, or school rankings, attendances, etc) on a mobile phone. Even more worrisome, I don't see how mobiles can be used to help teachers interpret that data or learn how to change their actions based on that data/interpretation to improve teaching. Without any return on their data input efforts, teachers will soon tire of data entry and then the data will be useless.So before we get too lost in mobile (or tablet, or computer) hype, let us remember that these are just tools, and its humans that matter more.

      • Motivated data collectors is the only way to make this a success. i know in camfed our data monitoring is worked because of the network of 16,000 camfed alumnae that support us at district/school level.

        within 24 hours we are able to report on the data and feedback to our cama women who in turn feedback to the schools.

        great article!

  8. john lovely

    I like the idea of the use of the mobile phones for the communication of information. However, i would be concerned that the school administrators / headteachers obtain benefit from an EMIS system and i do not see that this could be delivered using a mobile phone ALONE. The risk is then that school based staff become data collectors with all the assocaited risks regarding data quality. Has anyone looked at solutions that might integrate the mobile phone as the mechanism for delivery of data, but having this attached to a local EMIS system.

  9. If the MIS is cloud based you just need a Smartphone with a browser. I just checked our web site user admin on my Samsung Galaxy S. The information should be device independent.


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