Using mobile computing to conduct agricultural surveys was a natural for the National Agricultural Statistics Service, but finding the right device and the technology to support it wasn’t nearly as simple. NASS, an agency of the Agriculture Department that collects agricultural data in remote locations, has tried several solutions since the 1980s, finally settling on one that combines the use of tablet computers on the front end and cloud technology on the back end.
By using Apple iPads to help enumerators collect and report data to a private cloud, NASS has seen a variety of benefits, including reduced costs, improved data quality and dramatic time savings.
“We are saving money and staff hours, which makes up the majority of the budget for most government agencies,” says Pam Hird, project manager of the Computer Assisted Personal Interviewing (CAPI) Operational Efficiency Project. “And we are also improving the timeliness, quality and analysis of the data.”
As agencies adopt mobile computing to handle a variety of chores, the success that NASS has had in implementing tablet computers offers some important lessons.
NASS, which has compiled agricultural data for 150 years, employs about 3,000 enumerators in all 50 states and Puerto Rico to conduct thousands of surveys a year. Until recently, these surveys were conducted primarily by using paper questionnaires that enumerators carried by hand to interviews. The surveys were then mailed to a supervisor for review and to a field office for data entry. “A federal mandate to improve efficiency led the agency to look into handling the survey process electronically,” says Renee Picanso, director of NASS’ Census and Survey Division.
“Based upon the successes of other federal agencies collecting information using electronic devices, an inititave was developed by senior managers to view options for a CAPI solution that would work for NASS with current technology,” Picanso says.
NASS had been researching options for a CAPI solution since the 1980s, but technology costs, security issues and lack of an efficient method for transmitting data hampered implementation of a CAPI process. “In spring 2009, a recommendation was put forth utilizing netbooks and aircards for data capture and transmission,” Hird says. “However, tests revealed that the netbooks were difficult for the enumerators to use to collect survey data.”
In March 2010, the CAPI team compiled a list of requirements for an optimum data entry device, based on extensive testing in the field with enumerators. When Apple released the first iPad the following month, it met every one of the requirements.
“We did test other tablets and PCs,” Hird says. “But the iPad was the only one that met all of our requirements. To my knowledge, we were the first federal agency to put iPads into production.”
Using tablets to collect data has eliminated numerous steps from the surveying process, helping NASS save money in a variety of ways.
The agency uses a system developed in-house, Electronic Data Reporting (EDR), to publish questionnaires for enumerators via a web browser. NASS no longer has to print the hundreds of surveys it uses, nor does it have to mail them out to enumerators, saving money on printing and postage.
Enumerators, who no longer have to carry envelopes stuffed with paper surveys out to their interviews, also avoid having to mail them in to supervisors once they’re completed. And after reviewing the data, supervisors don’t have to mail them to be keyed in to a NASS computer system for inclusion in the agency’s reports.
The program has been so successful that NASS expects the CAPI project’s savings to pay for the startup costs and equipment within three years, Picanso says.
In addition to the cost savings, CAPI has improved the quality of the data NASS collects. Skipping the step of keying in the data from the paper forms not only saves time and money, but also eliminates the possibility that errors will be introduced when data is keyed in, and ends the need for a statistician to review the data for errors.
“We have noticed that the data that comes in from the iPads is a lot cleaner and a lot easier to understand and more complete than the data that was being collected with paper and pencil,” says Kevin Harding, deputy director of NASS’ Virginia field office.
By eliminating the coordination of paper questionnaires and reliance on the mail, the data is typically in a statistician’s hands for analysis within 48 to 72 hours after the interview. This quick turnaround gives statisticians more time for analysis. In addition, the elimination of reliance on the mail system has allowed the data collection timeframe to be extended, and NASS is seeing response rates improve with the added time for collecting survey data, Hird says.
“I see this as a big improvement in data quality,” Harding says. “To me, that’s the No. 1 goal: to collect good data.”
Using iPads has provided an excellent solution on the front end of the CAPI program, but the CAPI team also had challenges to overcome on the back end. While the cost and time savings are important, Hird says security is the program’s “most important factor.” The data that NASS handles is considered sensitive, so making sure it doesn’t fall into the wrong hands is a critical consideration.
Survey questionnaires are downloaded into a browser window and use only the operational memory of the iPad. No data is stored on the tablet’s hard drive. During the download of survey questionnaires, a broadband signal must be present. Enumerators conduct the interviews and answer the survey questionnaires as though they are online, regardless of whether they have a signal.
“The biggest challenge was to mitigate signal fluctuation,” says Mojo Nichols, a senior IT specialist for NASS. Enumerators in the field frequently found themselves in areas with poor wireless coverage.
The solution was to use Ajax, a technology through which the iPads can send data to NASS servers asynchronously. If no signal is available, the data sits in the iPad’s flash memory in an open browser window until a signal can be found. When a wireless signal is available, Ajax automatically transmits survey data to the EDR cloud.
“We’ve used Secure Sockets Layer technology throughout the whole thing,” Nichols says. “It’s all encrypted, from the endpoint to the data center.”
To further bolster security, the iPads have been locked down so that users can’t store data or download outside applications on them.
“Generally, the iPad has been quite nice for that,” Nichols says. “It is a lot easier to lock down than a netbook.”
As the CAPI program moves forward, NASS will continue to make improvements. The CAPI team custom-developed the EDR system using open-source software, which allows them the flexibility to add new enhancements and features.
“This whole system has evolved incredibly over the past two years,” Hird says. “And it will continue to evolve to meet business needs and to embrace opportunities for future enhancement.”