Data for Health Update: Mobile Health Surveys in Tanzania


In early July, researchers from the Health Systems Program went to Tanzania to help conduct focus group sessions on the challenges and successes of using a SMS survey to assess non-communicable disease (NCD) risk factors within the country. Assistant scientist Dustin Gibson and research coordinator Hannah Selig went as part of the Data for Health Initiative (BD4HI), a project funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies which aims to help government officials and public health leaders make informed decisions on health care priorities by collecting public health data.

The Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health (JHSPH) is a partner organization in BD4HI that is leading the research and development component of the NCD arm of the Initiative. Researchers in the Health Systems Program and Department of International Health at JHSPH are evaluating the viability and helping to optimize performance of mobile phone surveys to gather NCD risk factor information, such as tobacco and alcohol use, physical inactivity and unhealthy diet.

The goals of the focus group session were to learn how the participants interacted with a text message survey and gauge their comprehension of the question wording and intent, and to measure the logistical aspects of the survey, such as how long it took participants to complete and if they struggled to understand the questions. The focus group sessions were a collaborative effort with JHSPH partner organization, Ifakara Health Institute (IHI), who conducted and analyzed the data from the focus group sessions and will be leading survey efforts in Tanzania.

The SMS survey included 15 questions aimed at assessing major NCD risk factors and touched upon topics such as reducing salt intake in one’s diet, blood pressure screening, and tobacco and alcohol use. JHSPH and IHI used international technology providers Viamo to implement the survey, and Datavision, a Dar-es-Salaam-based call center and recording studio for the audio files (where the questions are recorded in Swahili).

The focus group sessions revealed challenges such as more difficulty for older participants to read the questions and complete, and a longer length of time overall to finish the survey. Following the focus group sessions, IHI researchers made adjustments for the length in time by having participants input a number instead of a worded response and made the questions easier to respond to.

The focus group sessions were a key step in the process to collect risk factor information, as now the JHSPH group will move on to the next phase, which is implementing the survey to approximately 1,500 respondents. Incentives in varying amounts will be provided to all participants. This phase will provide essential data on the presence of NCD risk factors in Tanzania, the viability of collecting surveillance data using mobile technology, and will help inform policy decisions for country health officials. 

Going forward, the JHSPH research team will conduct comparable surveys in additional countries that have partnered with the Data for Health Initiative, such as Bangladesh, Colombia and Uganda.

For more information on using mobile health surveys to collect NCD data, read the Special Issue published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research.