Using smartphone applications to enhance longitudinal survey methods

Lead Research Organisation: Queen's University of Belfast
Department Name: Inst of Child Care Research


When researchers want to explore the development of social behaviour, such as delinquency or substance use, they usually rely on questionnaires to collect their data. In order to explore issues that questionnaire data can't answer, they use qualitative studies. Combining the data from large scale quantitative surveys with those of small scale qualitative ones is challenging, because the groups of people involved are often not the same. And asking people to complete a questionnaire is not a very good way to find out about their behaviour. People do not always recall their behaviour accurately; they may not wish to disclose some things, and people find it easier to remember some kinds of things than others. In short, our memories are notoriously inaccurate and they can be very biased. Finally, there is a limit on how many questions we can ask people to answer on a questionnaire.

Smartphone apps could transform data collection, providing social scientists with richer, more reliable data on which to build theory and knowledge. Although researchers already use GPS data, and data from Facebook and Twitter, these sources cannot match the potential of a bespoke smartphone, that will - simultaneously - be able to collect different kinds of data on the same individual or group of individuals. This can overcome many, if not all, of the limitations summarised above.

In this 'proof of concept' study, we propose to examine factors influencing adolescent behaviour, particularly substance use, as a means of testing the feasibility and acceptability of this form of data collection.

All consenting pupils aged 16-18 (n 200) attending two schools will complete a baseline survey providing basic demographic information, and information about their friendship networks, activities, and substance use. Parts of the survey will be repeated at 2 and 6 months, to capture self-reported changes in friendship networks and behaviour. They will be asked to install an app on their phone that will, without their further intervention, collect the following data across this 6 month period:
- GPS data on where, when and with whom adolescents spend their time
- Data on the frequency and duration of texting and phone use, providing information on these important forms of communication
We will also collect:
- Contextual data on young people's 'lived experience', by inviting participants to contribute photo-journal/visual ethnographic data about features of the local environment relevant to their lives.
- Data on substantive issues, such as drug and alcohol use, via periodic sampling of current behaviour.
In short, the app will do something that the traditional survey method cannot. It will provide data on young people's social connectedness, the extent to which this changes on a daily basis, how it changes and develops over time, and how this is influenced by the physical environment.

We have included 'mini-experiments' within the study to assess the effectiveness of different ways of retaining the participation of young people.

We will be compare the information from paper surveys with the electronic data, shedding light on the 'value added' of the latter from of data collection, and any problems associated with it. The electronic data will enable us to investigate associations between proximity, peer nominations and features of the physical environment that can influence behaviour e.g. isolated spots, social venues, private versus public spaces. We will be able to use the data to examine their value added over reliance on imputational methods typically associated with Social Network Analyses.

Approval will be sought from a University Ethics Committee. We will explore the ethical issues with colleagues from a range of social science disciplines, and run focus groups with participating young people to explore their experiences, attitudes and concerns.

Planned Impact

The primary impact of this pilot study will be for academic beneficiaries. However, because smartphone apps could transform data collection in the social sciences, providing researchers with richer, more reliable data on which to build theory and knowledge, it has the potential to impact on a range of users in the longer term.

For example, if the pilot study is successful, it could pave the way for a more substantive study on adolescent development, which could in turn provide policy makers from a wide range of government departments, and service providers from the statutory, voluntary and private sectors, with a better understanding of how spatio-temporal factors and peer networks influence the development of patterns of alcohol and substance use, delinquency, or healthy patterns of behaviour e.g. physical activity. This information could, longer-term, benefit adolescents via the development of policies or interventions designed to support optimal development, and minimise health problems or risky behaviour such as the misuse of alcohol, licit and illicit substances. This would also benefit society more widely, in terms of NHS costs, criminal justice and welfare costs etc.


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Description The project team created a smartphone application (app) for android phones, to find out if members of the public could take part in research studies using their phones instead of using a pen and paper survey or online questionnaire.

The app was designed to send short questionnaires to the users' phones at weekly intervals, collect information on location (using GPS), collect information on how often they texted or called their friends, and it allowed participants to send photos of their social lives to the research team.

We conducted a study to find out whether or not people would use the app, what they thought of the app and the study, and whether or not the app worked and collected the information needed for research. This study focused on illicit drug use and social activities among school pupils between 16 and 18. We asked around 200 school pupils to complete a paper survey, online survey, and to download the app.

We also spoke to research ethics committees from different academic subjects, to see if their concerns about this study were the same or different to those anticipated and addressed in the ethics application.

We found that most pupils completed the paper survey in school, but very few completed the online version or downloaded the app. We found a number of reasons for this:

1. Not all pupils had android phones. Apps for other types of phones could not collect the same information; and there were difficulties in installing apps on different phone types.

2. Young people have a sense of privacy about phones and social media and want to be in charge of what data they share. They felt uncomfortable about an app sending information when they couldn't see this happening.

3. Among the pupils who did use the app, the survey data and calls and text information was of good quality and there was little missing information. The geographical (GPS) information was good quality, but some users did not have GPS enabled on their phone all the time. The app was not able to switch this on automatically.

4. Five school ethics committees provided feedback on the ethical application for the project. Cross-disciplinary concerns revolved around participants' anonymity and ensuring fully informed consent. Attitudes to the use of technology varied by discipline, in particular on the gathering of GPS data, which is a familiar approach in disciplines such as Geography, but less familiar to other social and health science disciplines.
Exploitation Route These findings are of relevance to social researchers and research methodologists in other fields who may wish to consider using phone apps for data collection. In particular it can inform the level of resources needed to obtain a higher rate of app users.

They can also provide guidance and advice to research ethics committees regarding issues of ensuring consent and privacy, and issues of collecting sufficient data.

While the app software itself could not be made available as a generic tool for all phones, the initial programming and learning from the issues raised can inform for further research app development.
Sectors Communities and Social Services/Policy,Creative Economy,Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Education,Healthcare,Government, Democracy and Justice,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

Description This project aimed to influence the use of new digital technology for the purposeful collection of information, both for research and for service design. The principle impact of this research is the design of a new application for the Android operating system called "MobiQ". MobiQ can: schedule and issue survey questions; take Global Positioning readings from participants' device; record destinations of calls and SMS from the device; record information identifying the device (e.g. phone number, make, model); prompt and accept photographic responses from participants; cache data in a secure cloud. We are currently preparing to release the source code via open software repository. We have delivered seminars and poster presentations describing the app, as well as the methodological challenges to using it in research at: The University of Michigan Network on Inequality, Complexity and Health; Glasgow University Urban Big Data Centre; Nothern Ireland Child Care Research Forum Conference; Queen's University Belfast Connected Health Special Interest Group Data from baseline paper and pen surveys for both pilot schools have been summarised for the schools in plain English, in order to inform pastoral policies around substance use and well-being, and to increase teacher awareness of how pupils interact via new digital platforms.
First Year Of Impact 2014
Sector Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Education
Impact Types Societal

Description Alcohol Research UK Small Grants Scheme
Amount £10,000 (GBP)
Funding ID 2017 SG/1081 
Organisation Alcohol Research UK 
Sector Charity/Non Profit
Country United Kingdom
Start 11/2017 
End 12/2018
Title MobiQ: A modular Android application for collecting social interaction, repeated survey, GPS and photographic data 
Description The MobiQ app for Android smartphones is a feature-rich application enabling a novel approach to data collection for longitudinal surveys. It combines continuous automatic background data collection with user-supplied data. It can prompt users to complete questionnaires at regular intervals and allows users to upload photographs for social research projects. The app has the capability to collect GPS location data, and calls and text frequency (excluding content) unobtrusively. The app transmits data to a secure cloud rather than storing research data on the phone, but can also store data temporarily if a data connection is unavailable; hence, MobiQ offers data security advantages over text- or web-based surveys using phones. MobiQ has been pilot tested in the field in a social science research project and is able to collect longitudinal social research data. Due to its modular and flexible design, MobiQ can easily be adapted to suit different research questions. Furthermore, its core design approach which allows for long-term power efficient data collection can be re-used outside the social sciences domain for other kinds of smartphone-based data-driven projects. Projects that have a requirement for communications-based, sensors-based, user-based data collection or any combination of these may find our code and design approach beneficial. 
Type Of Material Improvements to research infrastructure 
Year Produced 2018 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact MobiQ code and architecture has been successfully adapted to build an app for a project investigating smartphone-based implicit authentication for mobile access control. 
Description Child Care Research Forum Presentation 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Presentation to familiarise the audience with the Smartphones Study, the type of data which can be collected and the potential for ongoing engagement with participants. Advantages and challenges were discussed, particularly with regards to recruiting participants.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
Description Connected Health Seminar 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? Yes
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Other academic audiences (collaborators, peers etc.)
Results and Impact Participants were interested in the potential use of smartphone applications in the delivery of various interventions currently under research. For example, the usefulness of an interactive application to monitor and encourage parents' adherence to a child's medication regiment was discussed. Both advantages and limitations of a smartphone-oriented methodology were discussed.

Slides were disseminated to members of the network
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014
Description European Public Health Conference - Ethics Section Meeting 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact The analysis of ethics committee opinions of the Smartphones study was presented at a workshop organised by the Ethics section of the European Public Health Association at the annual meeting in Austria. There were a number of questions relating to the use of phones in research in adolescence and the presenter offered advice and follow up sources of information for attendees.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
Description MRC/CSO Social & Public Health Sciences Unit, Glasgow Lunchtime Seminar Programme 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact Invited seminar, delivered by Helen McAneney
place: MRC/CSO Social & Public Health Sciences Unit, Glasgow Lunchtime Seminar Programme
Date : 18th Nov 2015 1-2pm
Title: Social Networks and Interventions: A walk in the park or something more complicated?
Audience - academic approx 40

Asked to provide slides, and variety of questions
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
Description Urban Big Data Centre Presentation 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Other academic audiences (collaborators, peers etc.)
Results and Impact The talk led to a discussion about the feasibility of using Smartphones for GPS data collection, and suggested that using bespoke devices for more compliant groups, while smartphones were suitable for collecting survey data and photographic information.

In particular, the discussion revolved around the security of the system we used for keeping participant data off handsets but uploaded to a research database.

After the talk, one of the staff from the UBDC asked to meet to discuss the ethical issues of collecting visual data.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015