Maximizing the use of KoBoToolbox & more - interview with expert, Janna Rous

December 14, 2021

Janna Rous, a humanitarian information management expert, an aid worker, a data enthusiast, and a mother of two shares her passion for digital data collection tools and her own journey into data management in the humanitarian and international development sector. Through her initiative, Humanitarian Data Solutions, Janna aspires to help as many development practitioners as possible to feel more confident with data – collecting it, analysing it, visualising it, and using it to take action.

An expert in mobile data collection tools, Janna has already trained and inspired thousands of field workers, practitioners and change makers to leverage tools, like KoBoToolbox to improve their interventions and scale their impact. In this interview, Janna explains the benefits of switching to mobile data collection tools, the common challenges data collectors face while using such tools, some skills that can come in handy and how humanitarian data solutions can help make the data collection and management process more efficient and impactful for all. Stay with us as we share some excellent tips, recommendations, resources and training opportunities with Janna that can significantly improve your data literacy and capacity.

Get to know Janna

Could you give us a short introduction? (where are you based, your favourite leisure activities, favourite cuisine or anything else you’d like our readers to know).

Sure! Originally, I’m from Canada. I met my husband while working in North Sudan over 10 years ago. We now live in a small village outside of Oxford. I’m a mom of two little ones (aged 2 and 4 years old) so my leisure activities typically revolve around them – our favourites are jumping on trampolines, diving into ball pits, and eating ice cream. 🙂  

Our favourite cuisine has to be from the Middle East – we lived there for a few years and our eldest was born there. We can never seem to get enough of hummus, falafel, and fresh flatbread!

How long have you worked in the international development sector? Which region(s) of the world have you worked in so far and where did you like working the most?

My interest in international development began at a young age through exposure to various people who had travelled and worked in Central America and Africa. In 2004, as a student of Water Resources Engineering, I started volunteering with Engineers Without Borders Canada. In 2007, I was placed in a rural District Water and Sanitation Team in Northern Ghana as a Junior Fellow which was a life-changing experience for me as I lived with a Ghanaian family and worked for a Ghanaian government team for 4 months. I credit this experience, that family, and those colleagues for helping me develop a lot of my personal theory and approach to international development.

After graduation, I worked with an engineering firm in Canada for a few years developing computer models of watersheds which helped me polish my technical skill in data management, GIS, and modelling. Since then, I’ve worked in Sudan, Ghana, Jordan and the Middle East Region in humanitarian and international development teams. Now, I’m based in the UK where I’ve worked for a charity called Emerging Leaders as Head of Operations and lead Humanitarian Data Solutions.

What was my favourite? Impossible question to answer. In each place, each role, there were dear friends who taught me innumerable lessons and there were incredible experiences that have been an irreplaceable part of my life journey.

What inspired you to pursue a career in humanitarian information management?

I would say I kind of “fell” into humanitarian information management. I was hired to develop new humanitarian programmes a few years ago and was introduced to OpenDataKit (now ODK) as a way to collect humanitarian needs information. I suppose my background in engineering, computer modelling and GIS allowed me to quickly turn that data around into interesting analyses that we could develop into funding proposals and needs assessment reports for donors. The possibilities seemed to be endless, new ways of working that hadn’t been previously possible before smartphones. Since then, I’ve just tried to continue to push into interesting and scalable use-cases for improving humanitarian and development programmes using data.

What are your thoughts on the digitisation of development and humanitarian response?

In brief, I think digitisation opens up amazing new possibilities that weren’t possible when I first started in the sector. Putting amazing technology in the hands of creative people who want to make people’s lives better has led to so much innovation and continuous improvement. In the process of digitisation, I think it’s important to remember that we’re all very human in this system. People’s real, non-digital lives, have really been turned upside down in humanitarian crises. And while digitisation can help deliver better, faster and more relevant services – we still need to meet very physical, real, human needs. 

Digitisation makes it even more important for us as aid and development workers to ensure that tech tools are just tools that we use to support our very human-centric work. When we interview people, we need to use eye contact and share a laugh together. We need to be able to listen to their story, not just use their data to make decisions. So yes – I love it, and I also think it reinforces just how important it is for us to put our tech tools down and remember to connect deeply, create art and music, dance, laugh, cry, share meals and experiences.

There are so many digital data collection tools in the market, what drew you to specialize in KoboToolbox in particular?

You know what? I just love all the ODK-family of software teams 😊. I got started with ODK and ODK Aggregate in 2014. That’s where I fell in love with mobile data collection. In 2016, we moved our field team to use ONA after I saw their CEO speak at a local conference, and I loved them too, as they had great additional user management capabilities. I also got to meet Chris, from SurveyCTO, at the MERLTech Conference in London pre-COVID, and loved his demo, as he showed me the additional features they’d built into their interface.

So why KoBoToolbox?  Well, primarily because of my own mission to help field programme teams move into digital tools, especially local NGO teams. And the challenge I often see them face at first is cost – KoBoToolbox allows anyone to get started easily and for free while realising some of the additional data management disciplines that they need to address, as they want/need to turn their data into analyses, reports, and decision-making products. I just love that this software has an easy-to-use front-end with enormous capabilities to be used at scale and it’s free for users, which extends digital transformation potential to even the tiniest or most remote team. Plus, they have a fantastic community forum manager who’s always ready to help. So KoBoToolbox is where I’ve spent a lot of time teaching people about quality data collection!

In your opinion, what are the biggest benefits for organisations to switch from paper to mobile data collection tools like KoBoToolbox?

There are many benefits of switching to digital data collection tools, but these are my top favourites:

  • Timely Insights – In the past, we’d collect data on paper, and then spend weeks entering them before doing the analysis. Now, we spend a lot more time up-front, developing high-quality data collection tools, and automating the analysis so that as data gets collected, we can see almost real-time results of our efforts. Digital data collection totally transforms the timeliness of insights. This could mean, in a humanitarian team, for example, rapid needs assessments after acute emergencies can be used within hours to get sign-off on emergency response.
  • Data Quality – With paper data collection, you often end up with missing data and answers that might not make sense logically or methodology that hasn’t been followed correctly. One of my favourite features of tools like KoBoToolbox is that you can programme your digital questionnaires so that they do little mini-calculations as the data is being filled out to check that data makes sense and to make sure nothing is missing. Overall, the change in the quality of the data you can collect with a digital form is amazing.
  • Data Triangulation – Another cool benefit is the possibility to collect different types of data like images, GPS points, and ‘metadata’ like timestamps that are all connected to the form. It’s a way to prove data collection happened at a particular place, at a particular time, etc. If accountability is especially important to an organisation or a donor, then this is an amazing feature that allows local teams to really showcase their programme quality.
  • Global Consistency – Digital data collection can help teams think about how their various programme locations collect similar data, use similar data collection questionnaires, and can feed into cohesive overviews. While this isn’t inherent in the software itself, the software often leads organisations to give greater thought to how they’re managing data globally, and it seems to spur on teams to create exciting new endeavours globally. 

What are the most common challenges data collectors face while using tools like KoBoToolbox and how can they avoid them?

I would say a couple of the primary challenges that data collectors and organisations face include:

  • Creating Quality Forms Many people tend to take an existing paper-based questionnaire, and just translate it directly into a digital format without really utilizing the added benefits of a digital format – like data validation, appropriate skip logic in the form, etc.  This results in teams ending up with the same poorer-quality data they’d collect using paper. I run a training programme for KoBoToolbox users called “Mastering Form Design in KoBoToolbox” that addresses this problem and introduces them to basic and advanced digital data collection techniques to help them make full use of the digital format.
  • Not turning data into insights – Teams will often stop after they collect data, and don’t necessarily go on to analyse that data and turn it into insights. So it is possible for teams to have a lot of unused data laying around, unsure how to best use it. This is common when teams have moved ahead with data collection without thinking through the real value of each question being asked, and how it ties into their ‘bigger picture.’  To address this, Humanitarian Data Solutions has also developed a course called “Getting Started in Power BI for KoBoToolbox Users” – which at least helps people to start thinking about visualising their data. 
  • Data Collectors not using appropriate data collection methodology This is a common one I come across. When moving to a digital data collection format, a lot of people put emphasis on the development of the digital tool and training people on how to use it but they forget about data collection workflows, which means that they often misuse the data collection tools, or don’t follow the expected methodology. It’s really important to think through the human workflows around your digital tool, to practice collecting data, to do role plays, to find the barriers to collecting data, and to address them openly, with empathy for different people’s perspectives.

In your opinion, what additional skills can help a practitioner enhance their use of digital tools like KoBoToolbox?

  • Having a firm understanding of your indicators – for example, what are you trying to measure through your questionnaire? And understanding how each question you ask ties into the bigger picture of how you’ll use the data once it’s collected is super helpful. Many people might think this only applies to donor indicators and M&E frameworks – but it’s important for teams to also clarify what other indicators they need and want to measure that allows them to learn about what’s working (and what’s not) in their programmes so they can learn, adapt and improve over time. So, really focusing on building the skill of “What questions should I ask?”
  • Next, getting clear on data protection – understanding how you’re using people’s data, and how you’re protecting it to the necessary level, is critical.
  • Building your skills in data cleaning and data analysis – is also really important and helpful. This doesn’t have to be complicated – Excel is used for lots of analysis, and is a great tool. Other tools that I see lots of people using include SPSS, [R], Python, and Business Intelligence tools like Tableau, Power BI, and QLIK. You can do almost anything using your favourite tool of choice, so it’s just about figuring out what kinds of analysis you really need to accomplish, and then learning how to do that in whatever tool you choose.
  • Learning and building skills in data visualisation – learning how to turn your analysis into usable formats for a variety of users is super helpful. This can be as far-reaching as using interactive business intelligence tools (e.g., Power BI), or getting into graphic design to help simplify meaning and allow the analysis to be consumed more easily. The possibilities are endless. Learning how to do some basic mapping in QGIS or another software, can be super useful too!

How can you and your team at Humanitarian Data Solutions help?

Humanitarian Data Solutions is all about supporting people along their data collection and information management journey. People who are looking for a good overview of how to get started can enrol in Humanitarian Data Solutions beginner courses “Getting Started in KoBoToolbox” and “Getting Started in Power BI for KoBoToolbox Users”.  

If individuals or organisations are looking to develop their staff skills beyond ‘beginner’ level, so they can create great digital questionnaires, then “Mastering Form Design in KoBoToolbox” is a great training programme to enrol in. We’re also accepting applications for humanitarian and development staff to join our Impact Data Practitioner Network launching in 2022.  If you’re interested, send an email to janna@humanitariandatasolutions.com

Finally, we provide consulting services to organisations to help them make the transition to digital data collection and visualisation. Just send an email to janna@humanitariandatasolutions.com and we’ll connect. 

The best way to keep up to date with what’s coming up is to join our email list here. Our next training will be launching in January 2022, so do get in touch if you’re interested! (and let us know that you heard about it through TolaData to get a small discount!) 

What improvements would you like to see in the mainstream data collection, analysis and Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E) processes?

I still think that the integrations between different tools are fiddly. Different tools are really awesome at individual pieces of the puzzle, for example, data collection OR data visualisation but it’s difficult to get all things working together in a single system. I think this is where interesting tools like TolaData come in, but in general, still think there’s a lot of improvement for data modelling and integrations. Another one is a better understanding of data protection and how that’s integrated into data collection, analysis, and visualisation tools.

Any tips or advice for development professionals on how to adapt their data collection and M&E during a pandemic, such as COVID-19?

I wrote an article on this very question, so I’d love to point you to this resource:

Any books or resource materials on digital data collection or management that you would like to recommend to our readers?

I’ll share some of my favourite books, but these are more “inspirations” rather than exact data resources. 

  • One of my favourite books is called “Creativity, Inc”.  It has nothing to do with digital data collection – but it has so inspired me and I’ve used it with my teams to think through how we ‘make the invisible visible,’ and allow ourselves the grace to fail.  When you start getting really rigorous about your data, you often discover that things might not be as ‘rosy’ as you thought they were. We need to be humble and creative and adaptable. This book is just the best.
  • Jackie Novogratz is a huge inspiration to me, and I highly recommend her two books “Manifesto for a Moral Revolution” and “The Blue Sweater”.  She’s someone who emphasizes the importance of the human experience, humility, accompaniment, and also rigour – amazing.
  • If you can look into “Poor Economics” by Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee, as well, their approach to using RCTs in development contexts is great, and I love their insights.
  • Currently on my reading list that I haven’t had a chance to read yet, but thought they’re also worth mentioning:  I had someone share a recommendation with me recently, “Data Feminism”, and am also reading “Impact: Reshaping capitalism to drive real change”.  Hopefully, they’re good ones, too!

What has been your happiest or frustrating moment related to your work?

Digital data collection has allowed me to be involved in remote programme management, where data is used to verify needs and aid delivery in highly insecure contexts. I remember a programme I was running that was completely dependent on amazing local aid workers who input thousands of data points over months of time to ensure their work could continue. I’d experienced so many emotionally acute moments in digital-only format with that team, reading intimate stories, seeing pictures and creating a ‘digital’ picture of a remote programme. But when I finally met the team in person it was the most amazing moment. It was the happiest of times, where we realized that without the digital data capacity, we wouldn’t have been able to meet such incredible humanitarian needs together. For me, that just showed the power of tech and of partnership across cultures and boundaries and I am forever inspired by that team.

Any final words of advice to those looking to pursue a career in data management or monitoring and evaluation (M&E)?

Oh goodness, go for it! I would say, find your community. Learn how to ask the right questions – grounded in a clear understanding of what you need to know to create forward movement and critical decisions. Keep humble and don’t worry about failing. Learn how to use your voice to advocate for the needs and insights you unearth through the process. And then have FUN playing with all the tools available to you. I find that using most software is a bit like playing a computer game – you can get really creative using it, turning your ideas into a functioning system. I’m always playing with new software, researching possibilities, and reaching out to chat with people. It’s such an amazing community of practitioners, so I know you’ll find friendly help out there!

We hope you found our interview with Janna helpful. If you have additional questions for Janna or would like to join one of her courses or training programs, you can simply email her, connect with her on social media, or just drop us a line below and we’ll be sure to let her know! 

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