Embracing open source survey tools

by | Apr 14, 2021 | Innovation Stories

Global impact

Efficiently collecting, managing, and using data in resource-constrained environments is vital to our humanitarian activities. Replacing paper-based methods with digital tools for collecting data has radically improved the opportunities for collecting data that can be used to inform planning and manage programs. We’ve benefited from factors such as the proliferation of inexpensive smartphones and a rapidly digitalising world, but a major determinant in many of our successes has been ODK.

ODK is free and open-source software for cost effective, scalable, and user-friendly implementation of mobile data activities. The open and interoperable components of ODK have become foundational to offline data collection; the IFRC and numerous National Societies rely on ODK or an associated software. KoBoToolbox is built on ODK technology, and KoBo Collect and ODK Collect are built using the same software code. 

Data can be collected with either a mobile app or web forms powered by Enketo, another open source project in the ODK ecosystem. Forms and submissions are synced when a connection is available. Having a reliable mobile app has been key for assessments after natural disasters, community mapping, surveying in displaced-person camps, and other situations. Web-based entry has been used extensively during the current COVID-19 health crisis due to the increased risks of face-to-face interviews.

There are numerous examples of the use of ODK by the Red Cross and Red Crescent global network. Spanish Red Cross has used ODK in many operations including to track their sanitation response in Nepal after the 2015 earthquake, to map water distribution points in Haiti after Hurricane Matthew, and to establish a health registration system in Greece for the European migration crisis. They also use ODK to track humanitarian activities providing support to migrants at the Spanish borders in an auxiliary role to the public authorities. The data collected with ODK is linked to a dashboard that informs the Ministry of Inclusion, Social Affairs and Migrations in real-time. 

American Red Cross has been leveraging ODK since 2013 in support of many international responses for assessment and registration purposes. The Bahamas Red Cross used ODK to register individuals impacted by Hurricane Dorian and facilitate multi-purpose cash and repairs and rental assistance programs. Turkish Red Crescent in collaboration with IFRC is using a self-hosted ODK Central server as part of the monitoring and evaluation of the Emergency Social Safety Net (ESSN) programme, and is planning its expansion to other departments and programs. In addition, they are contributing financially to the development of new features in Central. National Societies have used ODK for data collection in every sector and every phase of the disaster cycle.

A collection of a few of the tweets about the use of ODK by members of the Red Cross Red Crescent global network.

Understanding open source

A helpful metaphor is that open source is free as in “liberty” and not free as in “a free lunch.” You are permitted to freely use the software as is, or customize it as you see fit. With ODK, you’ll still need to buy the phones to run the data collection app and pay for a server; however, because it’s open source you have more freedom and options when choosing how to run the software. 

A misconception is that open source is less professional, less secure, or less reliable than licensed software. Open source doesn’t mean professional support is not available. ODK provides paid hosting and support options. However, you can also do it yourself as the ODK developers have provided thorough documentation, and have designed ODK to be easy to set up and run. 

Paid software is not an equally affordable expense for every player in the Red Cross and Red Crescent network. By using and sharing free and open source software within our global network, the costs of technology adoption can be lower. By investing in commonly used open source such as ODK, it also helps the software work well for everyone. Financially supporting the ODK team keeps the project running and maintained, helps to quickly implement bug fixes, and drives new features. When users who can afford it pay for hosting, professional support, and the development of new features, it benefits everyone including the users who cannot afford to pay. 


As part of the world’s largest humanitarian network, members of the Red Cross and Red Crescent network have firsthand experience with the power of building diverse connections. The ODK community is a diverse group of users and developers that embrace the ethos of open source; they readily collaborate and cooperate. The forum is active with people willingly troubleshooting issues, sharing use cases, asking advice, and suggesting features. 

The ODK community maintains robust standards that make it easy to build with, or on top of, the ODK tools. The XLSForm specification allows Excel-based authoring of survey forms and is compatible with a variety of mobile data collection tools. Data collection is just one step in the process. We need to transform data into informative graphics and extract insights. ODK makes it easy to integrate data collection with those later steps. The ODK Central server provides an OData feed that supports direct links to business intelligence software like Power BI, and users have built modules to connect to R – an open source software environment for statistical computing and graphics. 

The ODK team maintaining the software encourages collaboration by all stakeholders and actively invites users to participate in conversations around prioritization of new feature development. The community elects a Technical Advisory Board to work with ODK in guiding the future of the tools. The Red Cross and Red Crescent network has representation on the Technical Advisory Board via American Red Cross.

Forward momentum

As we push forward data and digital initiatives, it’s worth remembering that, “If you add digital, on top of a thing that is broken, you will have a broken digital thing.” Mobile data collection is not about a shiny app; it’s about empowering people, helping them to spend less time collecting data and more time making a difference. A move to digital tools should be accompanied with strengthening of complementary skills like survey design.

The Red Cross and Red Crescent network shares knowledge, skills, and disaster surge capacity; let’s support software that can be shared across our global network as well. We hope more National Societies consider ODK when assessing tools for their mobile data collection needs. It’s great open source software backed by a great group of people. There are many options in choosing how to use it for your activities, from setting up servers yourself to supporting the project by paying for hosting by ODK. If a National Society funds the development of new features in ODK, those features are available to the entire network of users. 

The American Red Cross reviewed mobile data collection tools in 2013 and ODK was identified as the best option. We’ve been happy with the performance of ODK and thrilled with how both the software and its community has grown since then. Many others in National Societies and the IFRC have come to the same conclusion regarding the utility and power of ODK. If you’re considering using ODK but have questions, reach out! There are lots of people happy to help.


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