Creating Technology for Social Change

Form Builders for Mobile Data Collection

Over the last few months Civic has been developing a form builder for mobile data collection campaigns. The form builder is one component of Promise Tracker, a project we’ve been working on over the last year with the goal of creating a set of tools and processes that allow a community to identify issues they want to track, design and deploy mobile data collection campaigns around those issues, and strategically leverage data for advocacy. For background on the project, read Ethan’s post about Promise Tracker and Monitorial Citizenship and a post about our initial design workshops.

In the first phase of the project we used Open Data Kit (ODK), an open-source data collection tool that came out of the University of Washington’s Department of Computer Science and Engineering. ODK allowed us to quickly iterate on forms and deploy those forms on Android mobile phones during our initial design workshops with partner organizations. As we develop the form builder for Promise Tracker, we are building upon ODK to create a data collection process specifically customized for community groups working on data-driven advocacy initiatives.

As part of our design process for the form builder, we looked at other form builder tools to get a better sense for each tool’s strengths and limitations and to create a comprehensive features list. One of our goals is to minimize esoteric form creation protocol (e.g. technical jargon or complicated processes for adding questions), as the form builder should be intuitive and accessible regardless of a user’s technical background. Additionally, the Promise Tracker form builder focuses on the underlying goal of organizing around a specific issue or government promise; thus, the form builder engages users in campaign strategy, survey design, and mobilizing around collection and integration of data into an issue narrative.

Examining other form builder tools (most of which are designed for mobile data collection) gave us a better idea of how to achieve these goals.

Form Builder Features

We looked at dozens of form builders and compiled the following features list to use in design decisions for the Promise Tracker form builder:

features list

While this feature list isn’t comprehensive, it includes many features of existing form builders. We’ve referred to this features list as we’re designing the user interface and functionality of our form builder. Our goal is not to include all these features, but to choose those most important for our target user group. We’re trying to pare down features to those most critical and minimize complexities during the form creation process to widen the potential user base and focus on issue-driven advocacy rather than the technicalities of form creation. For instance, we’ll definitely incorporate internationalization (language) to allow community groups in various locations to use the form builder, and we’ll include default values and hints (tooltips) to help guide users through the process of adding and modifying questions.

Form Builder Applications

Below is a selection of the form builder tools we looked at during our background research. For more insight into UX techniques, we also looked at form builders designed for form deployment in web browsers, such as Google Forms (we found that many of these form builders had nicer user interfaces than form builders for mobile data collection).

KoBo came out of Berkeley’s Human Rights Center and is based on PurcForm (PurcForm is a browser based Xforms designer). KoBo form builder allows you to create forms in a web browser (it can also be installed locally for offline form building). The form builder includes fairly complex functionality, such as cascading selections, skip logic, and metadata. The KoBo toolkit also includes KoBo Collect, a mobile data collection app based on ODK Collect, and KoBoSync, for syncing data from various mobile phones to a database (the CSV generated from aggregated data can then be used in R, Excel, or other applications). KoBoMap, a visualization interface for data collected via KoBo toolkit, is currently under development and will focus on geospatial visualization.

XLSForm allows you to create a form in Excel and automatically convert to XForms. XLSForm includes the ability to add cascading selects (conditional questions), metadata, hints, constraining responses, etc. XLSForm, however, isn’t suited for users unfamiliar with Excel and doesn’t include a GUI for form building.

SurveyCTO is specifically designed for capturing data during interviews. The platform doesn’t include a web-based form builder; rather, users design forms in Excel and SurveyCTO provides templates for use in Excel. The platform includes a SurveyCTO mobile data collection app based on Open Data Kit.

Magpi (formerly DataDyne / EpiSurveyor) is a data collection tool that also integrates SMS (users can submit data via SMS or send mass notifications). Magpi includes a form builder, mobile data collection app, and visualization engine and operates on a freemium model. The form builder includes advanced functionality such as internationalization and conditional logic.

CommCareHQ is designed especially for workers in the field who are visiting and collecting data from the same individuals repeatedly (e.g. users can easily pull up a client’s past data, even offline). The form builder includes such features as conditional logic and data validation. Like ODK, users can collect data offline and sync when online (data is stored on CommCareHQ server).

Open Data Kit (ODK) includes ODK Build, a GUI form builder where users can drag and drop and re-order questions. We used ODK during our initial design workshops, however ODK Build was a proof of concept for the ODK team and some technical skills are helpful for effectively building a form on ODK Build.


Overall, we found that many form builders require some technical skill, such as an understanding of concepts such as conditional logic and data validation, to deploy; users without some technical background would have difficulty creating forms using these tools. Furthermore, many of the form builders are based on PurcForm and largely maintain PurcForm’s fairly complex user interface. In creating the Promise Tracker form builder, we’re avoiding technical jargon and trying to simplify the interface to minimize requisite technical skill. Our goal is to create a minimal, drag and drop form builder interface that is intuitive to users, whether or not they’ve previously created a data collection form. We also want the tool to guide users through through the process of strategically deploying a data collection campaign for issue-based advocacy, so we’re including a page with information and questions about data-driven advocacy before users build their forms. Our form builder includes the follow unique characteristics:

  • Simplified form logic
  • Scaffolding that guides users through defining campaign goals and strategy
  • Validation and tips for designing an easy-to-use survey
  • How-to guides for launching a data collection campaign
  • Starter resources for how to share and present data once campaign is over

We’ll be testing the form builder with our partners, and will make modifications based on feedback. For more information about the project, read a blog post about monitorial citizenship projects and tools and workshop stories from our initial design workshops.