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What is Open Data Kit - ODK

 odk icon

Before we begin I assume you have heard of the term mobile data collection; which simply refers to the act of collecting data using mobile devices. The devices could be mobile phones or tablets. Well then, Open Data Kit is one of the many tools that are used for mobile data collection.  

Open data kit, commonly referred to as ODK is a set of popular free and open source tools that allow us to collect data using mobile devices. Being a pioneer tool of this nature, ODK is one of the most popular mobile data collection tool. The fact that it is free and open source also makes it a darling to many researchers considering the budget constraints that come about in many projects. Other reasons for its popularity are an active online support base and community and the fact that it has been tried and tested. It is worth mentioning that ODK best works on smartphones running the Android mobile operating system. Advanced users may find ways of running it on other devices such as iPhones but you are advised to stick to android devices unless you know what you are doing.

ODK is made of three (3) components that work together. These components are:

ODK Collect

ODK Collect icon

This is a mobile application hosted on the Android Play Store. The app is free and easy to download and install. The app renders the survey on the phone where enumerators fill out the survey questions.


These are the survey authoring tools. The term survey authoring refers to the transformation of paper questionnaires to digital forms that can be accepted by the mobile devices.

To author forms, users have an option of using the ODK Build web interface or Microsoft Excel. ODK Build offers an easy to learn intuitive web interface. Microsoft Excel, on the other hand, has a steeper learning curve since users have to learn the xls syntax for authoring forms.  

ODK Aggregate

This is the survey data hosting platform or the database. You can easily download the latest version of ODK Aggregate from the official ODK website for free.

As always, a database needs to be hosted in a web server to allow remote and concurrent access. As such, non-technical users can easily host ODK Aggregate on google app engine cloud platform whereas technical users have the added option of implementing a local server installation using MySQL and Tomcat.

How does ODK work

ODK Process New

  • Digitize your questionnaire using ODK build or Microsoft Excel.
  • Upload the questionnaire to your mobile device (ODK Collect).
  • Collect data using your mobile device.
  • Upload data to ODK Aggregate.
  • Visualize, map, publish and analyze data inside ODK Aggregate.
  • Download data for analysis with other statistical software.

What type of data can you collect using ODK

  1. Numeric
  2. Text
  3. You can do calculations
  4. GPS
  5. Video
  6. Audio
  7. Photos/Image
  8. Scan barcodes
  9. Signatures and many more.


If you are planning to collect data using mobile devices, ODK is undoubtedly one of the tools that you should consider using.  Besides the obvious reasons of its popularity we mentioned above, ODK also allows you to collect data offline (without an internet connection). It also gives you a firm foundation and acts as a bridge to similar tools such as, Survey CTO and Kobo Tool Box.

What is Mobile Data Collection

Data collection is the process of gathering and measuring information on variables of interest, in an established systematic fashion that enables one to answer stated research questions, test hypotheses, and evaluate outcomes. The data collection component of research is common to all fields of study including physical and social sciences, humanities, business, M&E amongst others.

Mobile data collection is the use of mobile devices such as tablets and mobile phones to collect data. More and more organizations and researchers are shifting from traditional paper based data collection to mobile based data collection. There are many reasons for this paradigm shift including; availability of the technology and skills, ease of use, the time factor and the penetration of use of mobile devices across the world.

There are different tools and platforms that allow data collection using this technology. The good news to anyone considering the use of this technology is that, several tools amongst them some of the most popular and best developed in terms of user experience, effectiveness and ease of use and setup are free and open source. This means that all you have to do is learn how to setup and use the tool without paying a cent. Did I mention that you don’t have to worry about support?! There are tons of consultants, organization and tech firms offering support in training and implementation at a cost. If you are the DIY kind of guy, most of these tools and platforms have vibrant online user forums and communities where you can get support for free from peer users.

What are the benefits of Mobile Data Collection?

The turnaround time

When using mobile devices for data collection, data entry is done at the point of data collection, this means that the data entry phase is eliminated consequently hastening the research process significantly.

Richer Data

Mobile devices come embedded with chips and rich features. For example, a camera, GPS, audio/video recorders, scanners and screens that can allow capturing signatures. This means that all a researcher has to do is leverage these features. The result is extremely rich data which would have cost a fortune to acquire some years back.

Cost Cutting

This technology greatly cuts the cost of data collection without compromising on quality. For example, no costs of data entry or extra costs of buying GPS devices or cameras are incurred.

Quality data

This technology allows enforcement of skip patterns, constraints and questionnaire logic ensuring that collected data conforms to the set rules.

Real-time access to data

When using this technology, data is collected and sent to a central server in real time. This can allow rapid response in times of catastrophes.

Enhanced Data Security

Data is usually held in servers that are secured with security certificates and unauthorized user access restriction.

Environmental Protection

Of course with this technology, we don’t have to cut trees to conduct research. By the way, have you heard of that environment joke? That humans are the only creatures in this world who cut the trees, make paper from it and then write "Save The Trees" on it.

How does mobile data collection work?

The easiest way to explain this is by using a diagram as illustrated below.

 mdc blog image

Tools and platforms for mobile data collection

There are various mobile data collection tools and platforms available out there. As we mentioned earlier some of the best tools are free and open source. Free - You don’t pay to use the tool, open source - You can extend the features and functionalities of the tool if you have some software development skills. There are also paid platforms, these come with user support and a few additional features.

The tools and platform vary in features and functionalities. For example, some of the platforms support offline mode, allowing data collection even without an internet connection while others only support live mode. Below is a list of some of the popular platforms. This list is not exhaustive though.

  1. Open Data Kit - ODK
  2. KoBoToolbox
  3. SurveyCTO
  4. CSPro for Android and smart devices
  5. Open HDS
  6. REDCap
  7. mWater
  8. Magpi
  9. Epi Info

Watch out for part two (2) where we will look at these tools and more in details.    

Copying and redistribution of this content is allowed as long as you cite the source

Jeff Karani.

Jeff Karani is the team leader at Tech For Development – T4D a leading Tech Consultancy Firm Based in Kenya.



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About T4D

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We work to help development agencies, SMEs, individuals and institutions design, develop, deploy and manage software solutions such as mobile applications, information systems, and web-based systems. 

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