Take a tablet

Elias with tabletFrom the very beginning of the ColaLife Operational Trial in Zambia (COTZ), field staff of Keepers Zambia Foundation (KZF) have been visiting the retailers they’ve trained to provide them with post-training support. If they can’t visit them, they follow-up by phone. All retailers have a phone and most (but not all) will be in areas with mobile phone coverage.

During these visits, field staff check, amongst other things, stock levels of Kit Yamoyo, check that the product is displayed well – off the ground and in a place where customers can see it – and check that a Kit Yamoyo sign is displayed outside the shop. Although these follow-up visits helped ensure the retailers remained engaged and ironed out any problems the retailer may be facing, it was impossible to collate the information gathered. But that has now changed.

In mid-May-14 we started to deploy Android tablets running Dimagi’s CommCare application. With a minimal amount of support from Dimagi (small implementations of CommCare are free), we tailored the application to follow the normal visit process but captured the data on the tablets. The tablets work offline but when linked to the internet, either through WiFi or through a SIM, the data stored on them is uploaded to an internet-based server. While uploading the data collected, the retailer list is synchronised so that all tablets use the same list of retailers. The tablets have GPS chips in them and so we are also able to collect the coordinates of the retailers.

The data collected includes:

  1. Retailer details: name, gender, contact details, shop type (grocery store or drug store), location (latitude/longitude), nearest health centre and more.
  2. Visit information: date/time of visit, whether the person staffing the shop has been trained, the presence of the training cards, wholesaler being used, sales, retail price, wholesale price, stock levels, whether the Kit Yamoyo sign is displayed outside the shop, whether the product is displayed well and follow-up actions needed.
  3. Metadata: name of the fieldworker and their activity level.

Although the visit form takes less than 2 minutes to complete, a mass of unique information is collected which is invaluable for the effective management of the supply chain. Nobody else has this retailer location information, for example, and in a vast country where people rely on the informal market, this is ‘gold dust’. So far 173 retailers have been trained in Eastern Province and we know the GPS coordinates of 168 of them. Here they are displayed on Google Earth:

Eastern Province Retailers - all

That’s the Malawi border to the east and the Mozambique border to the south. The three letters at the beginning of each retailer’s code indicates the district: PET=Petauke; SID=Sinda; KAT and KTT= Katete; CHP=Chipata; and VUB=Vubwi. Zooming in gives a clearer picture:

Eastern Province Retailers - zoom

I am a bit of an IT Geek (so I’m told) but rarely does IT deliver to my expectations. I’ve come across 2 exceptions to this in my life so far: the iPhone and CommCare. I cannot recommend CommCare too highly. It does a pretty complex task very, very effectively. It is easy to train field staff, management staff are able to see the data collected from anywhere and I am able to update the data collection forms and deploy them to the tablets wherever there is an internet connection – I’ve been doing most of it from the UK. I wish to thank the Dimagi staff, in particular Mofya and Nick, for their encouragement and support.

At the moment however, we are having to do the data analysis manually and we have some work to do to automate this.




  1. Hi Simon

    Thanks for sharing your experience using tablets for monitoring in the field. Quick question re the tablets you are using – what specific android tablet are they using? We are looking into getting some for direct data entry during household surveys and would be interested to know what hardware you chose for your project.



    • Hi K

      We are using Asus 7″ tablets (Model K004) but they have not been ideal as they do not have a back camera (only a ‘selfie’ camera). If we were starting again we would definitely get tablets with a back camera as the CommCare system also allows you to take photos as part of a questionnaire. I think the latest Asus tablets now have back cameras. You don’t need a tablet, a smart phone running the Android operating system is fine too. I also run the system on Samsung Galaxy 7″ (WiFi only) tablet but I have had problems with this model. If it’s left to discharge fully you can have difficulties getting to to recharge and this is not a problem you want!

      As far as I am aware all tablets and smart phones that aren’t made by Apple run the Android operating system and so they all have very similar features. Offline GPS is essential (ie the ability to be able to record GPS coordinates without an internet connection) but I think all Android devices will do this but it’s worth checking before you buy!

      We bought tablets that take SIM cards so they have an internet connection wherever there is a mobile data signal. However, this is not essential as you can link the tablets to WiFi when you get back to the office and upload data and synchronise. So a WiFi only tablet is fine.

      We bought locally made protective covers which we distributed the tablets in to protect them.

      Dimagi have a good web page with advice on choosing the right device for you here:

      Note the emphasis on buying locally if you can so that repairs and replacement is more straight forward.

      If you have anymore specific questions please don’t hesitate to ask.