We have been in the field for about two weeks and finished interviewing in the district of Temeke a couple of days ago (with Ilala & Kinondoni still to go). Once the face-to-face baseline interviews are rounded off, we will approach all respondents again through their mobile phones for the short weekly set of questions. In an earlier post, I gave a brief overview of the four technologies that we will be using for the mobile phone follow-up surveys: Call Centre, USSD, WAP and IVR (voice-based menu), and the procedure to assign respondents to these different technologies. In this post I will share some experiences regarding those technologies in the run-up phase to the actual mobile data gathering.
As I explained earlier, our aim is to end up with about the same amount of respondents in each technology condition in order to nicely estimate the effects of the data gathering channel on panel mortality, data quality, etc. (just like we randomized the amount of incentives to test effects there). So far, we have met with two possible difficulties here.
First, in the areas that we surveyed until now, the penetration rates of WAP phones and the proportion of respondents able to use them are much lower than expected. The good news is that since we are now moving from the poorer into the better-off areas of the city, the WAP rates in our sample will probably increase in the weeks to come. However, if WAP skills / availability prove to be mainly a function of household welfare, estimating the method effects here will become a whole lot trickier. But it’s still too early to draw any conclusions about this as yet.
The second possible obstacle that we are encountering is that it is still unclear when and under what conditions we will be able to use USSD (Unstructured Supplementary Service Data, see the first few pages of this document for a useful introduction and also have a look at the USSD paragraph of this earlier post).
In my opinion, USSD is an extremely promising technology for what we are trying to do. Firstly, and possibly most importantly, mobile phone users in East Africa know and widely use USSD for paying bills and making financial transactions (see for example M-Pesa). Secondly, USSD will work on any mobile phone without requiring installation or configuration. Furthermore, it is cheap and the communication channel can be established by both the user and the application. As things look now, the bottleneck seems to be that you need to partner up with the mobile providers, since USSD connections are always connections to the home network servers. However, things aren’t looking too bad on this front either.
When searching for more on the uses of USSD for similar projects (there is not a lot), I was happy to see that also Johan Hellström in his insightful report on “The Innovative Use of Mobile Applications in East Africa” mentions USSD as having great potential (especially for those simple request-response applications like ours) and also concludes that the technology has not been used to its full mainly because “its implementation requires close collaboration with the operator”. What seems to be absolutely vital here, is to get mobile providers on board in a very early stage.
For now, we are still quite confident that our group of WAP respondents will fill up eventually and that USSD will be up and running once we start approaching our mobile phone panel.