Using Smartphones to Collect and Manage Vital Information
By Eric Segal

Eric Segal
Eric Segal
For nonprofit staffers collecting data in the community, smartphone applications can offer efficient new ways to manage workflow, reports, schedules, and, more importantly, your time.

Whether you are reaching out to homeless families at a meal program, soliciting donations from executives downtown, measuring chemical levels at a river clean-up, or tutoring children in a youth center, you’re collecting data out in the community.

Until recently, your only option was to write that information on paper and bring it into your office, but smartphones now provide a new option. Those Blackberries, iPhones, Windows phones, and Androids are actually a tiny computer in your pocket ready to be put to use in a number of your nonprofit tasks.

For example, a tutor at a youth center can use this new technology to enter notes about the tutoring session, a description of homework assigned, and the date and time of the next session.

Similarly, consider a home health aide who works for an agency providing services to seniors and others with chronic conditions. At each home, the aide needs to note the time he/she arrived, the condition of the client, the services provided, and general notes. Currently, the aide fills out a paper form at the client's house, and then, at the end of the day, enters all the data into a computer in the office.

There are a number of problems with that workflow. Papers can get lost or damaged. The details of a visit, which were fresh in the aide's mind earlier in the day, can get forgotten. The aide has to write all the information twice (once on paper and then again later into the computer). The information, which could have important health ramifications, is not available to central staff until hours after the visit.

A smartphone solution solves all these problems. The data is entered while it is fresh in the aide's mind. It can't get lost, and it is available immediately to the office. Further, the office saves money because the aide saves time and forms do not need to be printed.

From your Phone to Your Office

When submitting the information via smartphone, the data is instantly entered into your organization’s database. The data might be moving into a web-based application like E-Tapestry, a desktop application like QuickBooks, or a homegrown database in Excel or MS Access.

When you return to your office, all the data is available on your computer, ready to be printed out as a calendar of upcoming appointments, incorporated into a report for funders, or loaded into a database.

No matter what your data is, the concept is the same: Submit the data remotely, and then access it later through the application that you specify.

“Apps” have been developed that collect data on four types of SmartPhones: Androids, Blackberries, Windows, and iPhones. If everyone in your office doesn’t use the same smartphone the devices can share data by using a new tool called Canvas ( With Canvas, you can create one form that will work on three of the four platforms (and the iPhone version is coming later this year).

Perhaps you or some of your colleagues don’t have smartphones. These people won’t have as much computing horsepower, but they can also send data in to the office via text. Using the same kind of bridge discussed above, write a text like this: “Student: Bill Blaine; Homework: Problems 1-6 on page 24.” Text it to a number where messages are picked up by a “bridge” like the one mentioned above, and the data gets sent into your office system.

Then, you need the data to go from your phone into the specified database you need on the other end. If you just need to see the data, you’ll be able to do that on the Canvas web site (like Excel, but on the web). If you need to send your data into your organization’s database, you might need to hire an IT firm to create a “bridge” from Canvas to your office’s data system.

Cost, Next Steps

There is no cost to set up a form on Canvas. Once you are ready to submit data from your phone, the cost is fifty cents per submission, or $20 per month, or $180 per year for unlimited submissions. If you need a bridge to existing data systems, you’ll have a one-time cost to build the bridge.

There are cost savings, too. Your organization will save money because print paper forms will no longer need to be printed. Moreover, you’ll save time because you won’t have to enter data twice #147; first on paper, and then on your computer.

If all you need to do is send info from your SmartPhone to a “web spreadsheet” hosted at Canvas, can you try it at If you need to connect to an existing system, or send data via texting, get in touch with a data services provider.

Eric Segal is the founder and president of the Data Collaborative, which has been providing reduced-cost data services to non-profits since 1997. He can be reached at

November 2010