Community-Level Data Management

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By Christine Ennulat
Posted on 7/25/2012
ChildFund staff with ultrabook computer at a plantain processing business.
In Dominica, ChildFund staff were able to use the ultrabooks in almost any situation, whether a home, outdoors or a place of business.

ChildFund is poised to fully join the 21st century.

If that sounds like a backhanded compliment, it’s not: In fact, among most international development organizations, this puts us at the front end of the curve.

Of course, our national and international operations have long been computer-based, but at the local level in the developing countries where we work, it’s a different story. Because of connectivity issues and the lack of technology in these often-remote areas, our program offices operate on a paper-based workflow. Information about the children in our programs is first collected in hard copies, which are then mailed — or even carried — to our national offices, where staff enters it into our databases manually.

We serve 13.5 million children and family members. That’s a lot of paper, a lot of keystroking, a lot of travel between national and area offices — a lot of time.

The Groundwork

In 2010, we saw the benefits of using technology for gathering data in the communities where we work, when ChildFund conducted two pilot programs, in collaboration with NetHope, Intel and Agilix, on uses of netbooks to streamline sponsorship processes.

We had the ability to conduct these interviews anywhere — a parent’s place of business, a home, sometimes in very cramped quarters or outside. It was easy just to take the laptop and do the work and still be engaged with the family.

— Ron Wolfe, Senior Business Systems Analyst and Project Manager

ChildFund staff from our field offices in Brazil used netbooks to collect data for the Child Status Index, which measures child well-being based on factors including education, nutrition, emotional health and access to health services.

Participants were excited about the prospect of not having to manage all the papers that such data collection usually generates. “Everything you need will be in one place,” said Virginia, a social educator with ChildFund Brazil. “It is all at your fingertips.”

Testing Applications

Now we’re taking what we learned and extending it toward achieving full digital data communications from the community level to the global and all points between. This spring, teams from ChildFund’s headquarters and some of our national offices collaborated in another pilot project, this time using ultra-portable computers to test a new child survey tool in Dominica and Zambia and computer tablets to collect digital images in Brazil. Funded in part by Intel, the project was designed to determine the feasibility of collecting and digitally transmitting data directly from the local level in all of the countries where ChildFund works. The project is called Community-Level Data Management, or CLDM.

Meeting Children and Families Where They Are

Honduras and Caribbean offices ventured into rural communities to interview about 200 children. Each group carried an ultrabook computer equipped with a data collection program developed by ChildFund International’s IT staff. Staff entered the child status information directly into the ultrabooks.

 Woman shows tablet computer to two children; a child sits at a table next to them, with stationery.
In Brazil, children were especially interested in the tablet computers, and staff members were happy to share.

“We had the ability to conduct these interviews anywhere — a parent’s place of business, a home, sometimes in very cramped quarters or outside,” says Ron Wolfe, senior business systems analyst and project manager for ChildFund. “It was easy just to take the laptop and do the work and still be engaged with the family. Kids were always excited to participate.”

At the end of each day, teams returned to the program office to sync their computers with ChildFund’s database, at which point the data was transmitted and then wiped off the ultrabooks. At week’s end, all the data was analyzed. “A weeks-long process was done instantaneously,” says Wolfe. The data will be important in guiding ChildFund’s programs in Dominica.

The pilot was replicated in Zambia, but in a more technologically challenging environment. The comparative lack of connectivity in Zambia proved an opportunity to test the technology in less than optimal circumstances. The application on the ultrabooks was designed to allow staff to collect data whether online or not and to store it until connection becomes possible.

Making Connections

The CLDM pilot project took a different form in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, where we used tablet computers to evaluate an app that adds geospatial information to existing child status data to yield information about geographic patterns concerning the children with whom we work. In the future, this will enable ChildFund to identify, for example, where nutrition levels trend higher or lower, or in what areas shelter tends to be more adequate or less.

Young girl with small pink laptop.
"This little girl was so excited to show us her toy computer," Ron Wolfe remembers of one of the Brazil home visits.

On each home visit, the team also used the tablet’s camera to photograph the child’s letter to his or her sponsor, adding that image to the data to be transmitted to ChildFund’s database in Richmond, Va. Letters transmitted digitally can be moved along to a translation database, from which our translators can access it, removing yet another series of time-consuming steps that these physical documents require.

One teenaged girl from Belo’s slums had a bright idea after the team photographed the letter she’d just handwritten: “Next time, give me the tablet and I’ll type the letter directly to my sponsor.”

This year has been about testing the technology and its applications. In fiscal year 2013, we will begin rolling it out. We’ll be able to do even more, and even better, for the children we serve.

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