How to use technology to monitor field activities

While it might seem surprising to people outside the field of international development / global aid, one big challenge in any international development program is making sure that activities actually get implemented in the first place (and in the manner they were designed).

Community health workers, teachers, peer educators and outreach volunteers often work by themselves in remote villages. They may receive a supervisor visit a few times a month, but mostly there may be no-one monitoring and the communities (in my experience) rarely complain if they don’t show up.

The traditional way of dealing with the problem of field activities not being implemented is to have supervisors do surprise visits to check that activities are running. However, with new technology becoming ever cheaper there are other viable options available.

Use photographs to show the start and end of an activity

Perhaps the simplest technology you can use for monitoring is the digital camera. Most digital cameras can automatically put the time and date on each photograph. If you have a participant take a photograph of the field worker at the start and end of the activity you can see whether the field worker was present for the activity and how long they stayed for.


Since digital cameras use batteries they can be used to monitor activities in any location. To see camera surveillance in action check out this report on monitoring teacher attendance by the Poverty Action Lab.

Use security cameras for continuous monitoring of an activity location

If your activities are always happening in the same place, such as a classroom or health centre, then you could install a security camera or webcam in that location.

Unfortunately most security cameras require a regular electricity supply, which can be a serious problem in remote areas. However, there are some models developed for cars that use batteries, although the batteries normally only last a few hours.

One way to get around this is to use a motion sensor camera that is normally used for recording wildlife. It only records or takes a photograph when something moves in front of it. If you place it at the entrance to the room you will at least see when people enter and exit. Many models also include night vision, which can be useful when trying to prevent theft of supplies.

Use audio recorders for meetings and workshops

If your activities are meetings, workshops or training sessions then you may only need to record the audio to know that the activity happened. The benefit of audio recording is that the batteries for portable audio recorders often last longer than for video recorders.

Audio is also very useful for giving feedback to the field worker on their facilitation and training skills, even when a supervisor can’t be physically present.

Use GPS trackers for drivers and deliveries

A GPS tracker can be attached to a vehicle or carried by an individual. It shows their current location on a map in real time. It is particularly useful for activities where someone is required to move between locations, such as delivering supplies to health centres or schools. If deliveries were made in the wrong place or the driver took the vehicle for a joy ride you would also be able to see it.


Image by Jyzz

Use fingerprint readers to identify participants

In some cases you may have a large number of participants who regularly receive a particular benefit, such as food or medication. In this case the main purpose of monitoring is to make sure no-one else receives (or steals) the supplies.

One way to do this is to use a finger print scanner to register each of the beneficiaries. They then scan their fingerprint each time they come to collect their supplies. If any of the fingerprints don’t match the original list then you know they are not an intended benefiairy.

Use smart phones for integrated monitoring

Smart phones are able to combine many of the previous options into one system. Many smart phones have GPS tracking and can take photographs, video and audio. Even if there isn’t mobile phone network coverage at the time of the activity you can still collect the information and it will upload when the network is available.

One of the major downsides to smart phones is that the battery life is often very short. However, it can be extended by purchasing multiple batteries or external battery packs.

Always inform staff and participants of recording

When battling staff absenteeism it can be tempting to pretend you’re James Bond and use your secret video recording pen to catch people out. However, covert recording is not just unethical it’s also illegal in many countries. So it’s very important to inform both staff and program participants if you’ll be using any of these monitoring methods.

An added benefit of using technology to help monitor field activities is that it can reduce false accusations made against staff thought to not be carrying out their activities.

Photo by ell brown

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About Piroska Bisits Bullen

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Piroska has worked on a range of international development programs involving local NGOs, international NGOs, UN agencies and government. She holds a Ph.D. in public health, has published articles in several journals, and was a speaker at TEDx Phnom Penh. Piroska is passionate about using scientific evidence and creativity to design programs that work.
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