In many of our minds, “data collection” brings up a vision of paper intake forms and never ending data entry.  In fact, in our upcoming survey of what outcomes measurement looks like in the real world, one of the most commonly repeated themes (alarmingly) was that human services organization didn’t have all the data they wanted because they didn’t have enough computers for all their front line staff to enter it.

There are of course many good reasons to have enough computers to allow all your staff to enter their data… but that’s not the only way to do data collection.  More people, I think, should be talking about passive ways to collect data – meaning, no one has to do any data entry, but rather the data – and often, lots of it—comes to you.

What would this mean?  There’s a whole marketplace of passive data collection devices like:

  • Swipe cards. With inexpensive machines, you can code a card with a magnetic strip (like a hotel room key), and then automatically record wherever it’s swiped.  So your clients could swipe to get their free lunch, or to enter the library.
  • Bar codes.  Even more straightforwardly, you could print bar codes onto a label, stick the label on things, and then read them with a hand reader. Most people think of package tracking when they think of this, but there’s no reason you couldn’t use it to track any kind of inventory or item.  For instance, you could scan the bar code on an item in museum storage to get information on it, or scan a patient bracelet to get a full case history.
  • GPS location sensors.  GPS sensors can report location information back to a central location. For instance, you could have a delivery vehicle automatically record where it is every ten minutes, and later dump all that data to look at the most efficient routes.  Or you could count the number of site visits a case worker does based on the number of stops her car takes.
  • Personal sensors.  For those clients who are willing to wear something a bit more intrusive, you can get all sorts of data – heart rate, mood, and more.  It’s very common for those with heart problems to wear a heart monitor around.  With enough buy-in from your clients, you could imagine a fascinating set of data that would report on when your anger management clients are most likely to get angry.
  • Electronic gauges.  Many things can be easily gauged with a small device – for instance, rain amounts, energy usage, water flow.  For instance, a gauge on an office bathroom sink could tell you how often people are washing their hands.

With these types of devices, the data is collected automatically—which means that reliability of the data is generally higher.  The GPS doesn’t forget to check in when scheduled, and the water faucet isn’t going to pretend that you’re washing your hands more than you do.  Instead of a huge pile of paper forms to be entered, you have a huge pile of data waiting to be analyzed.  Which of course isn’t the same as all the answers to your questions… but that’s another post.