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Digital Data Collection Vs. Data Collection on Paper

While digital data collection is a significant departure from the usual paper and pen data collection method, there are both advantages and disadvantages to each data collection method.  However, digital data collection is a step into the future because it allows for integration of data collection, data entry and data checks much more efficiently over a shorter time frame.  Before making a decision to use digital or paper formats, the management must keep the cost, quality, staff quality and infrastructure issues in mind. The following table highlights the differences between these methods of data collection:

Digital Survey
Paper Survey
Staffing and Training
  1. Staff should have basic field experience and basic computer knowledge.
  2. Staff must be trained on both – the questionnaire and the device operations.
  3.  Recruitment and training typically take longer.

  1. Staff should have basic field experience.
  2. Staff must be trained to address the questionnaire.
  3. Recruitment is more straightforward compared to those for electronic surveys.

  1. The infrastructure must be in place to charge the devices, backup and upload the data, and restore the software on all devices.
  2. Devices must be stored in a safe and checked for wear-and-tear, and damages on a regular basis.
  3. There should be replacement devices in place in case of a mechanical malfunction.

  1. Only basic infrastructure is needed to store finished and unfinished surveys.
  2. N/A
  3. Extra replacement surveys should be printed in case the originals cannot be used.

  1. A separate pilot is need for the questionnaire and for the device to ensure the staff is comfortable with both.
  2. Changing the software after piloting requires uploading the new version of the software on each device.
  3. Database structure must be updated and must be consistent with the questionnaire changes.

  1. A single pilot (may include multiple rounds) is needed to test the questionnaire in field conditions.
  2. If the questionnaire is changed after piloting all changes must be accommodated and new surveys must be printed.
  3. N/A

Data Validation and Accuracy
  1. Data Collection and Data Entry happen at the same time, and no separate Data Entry staff needs to be hired.
  2. Data can be scrutinized real time as the data is data is getting uploaded to the server (if configurations allow).
  3. Data validation is built into the software, which does not allow invalid values to be entered.
  4.  Back-checks can be performed as usual to ensure data accuracy.

  1. Data Collection precedes Data Entry, and therefore there are two separate teams for these operations.
  2. Data is scrutinized manually either after the survey is completed or after the data is entered electronically.
  3. Data validation happens at the time of Data Entry.
  4. Back-checks are performed to ensure data accuracy.

  1. Though the electronic devices such as notebooks and tablets are getting cheaper, buying the devices is expensive.
  2. There are no costs for data entry.
  3. Setting up the infrastructure is essential and is costly upfront.
  4. Training the staff requires a longer time upfront and because the staff must be trained to understand the questionnaire and the device operations.
  5. Electronic surveys combine many steps into one and therefore may be a more viable option for future as the digital devices get cheaper.

  1. Paper surveys entail lesser cost for data collection, higher overall costs (see bullet 2).
  2. Additional costs for data entry include hiring, training and employing the data entry staff, and setting up the data entry machines.
  3. The infrastructure costs for data entry can be high depending on the number of surveys to be entered.
  4. Training the staff happens in two stages – the surveyors are trained for data collection and then data entry operators for data entry. Therefore training can be costlier for paper surveys.
  5. The paper surveys are less efficient than electronic surveys and therefore may end up being more expensive.


  1. Good one!

    I also believe making intermediate changes (say during training time) is lot easier in paper survey. One of the major drawback of digital survey is the lead time between finalizing questionnaire and software preparation.

    but nothing better than getting real time data!!


  2. A very interesting article about data collection. Those who are in data collection and data entry services will surely find this helpful. Thank you for posting.


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