The KoBo Platform: Data Collection for Real Practitioners

Update: be sure to check out the excellent points in the comments section below.

I recently visited my alma mater, the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI), where I learned more about the free and open source KoBo ToolBox project that my colleagues Phuong Pham, Patrick Vinck and John Etherton have been working on. What really attracts me about KoBo, which means transfer in Acholi, is that the entire initiative is driven by highly experienced and respec-ted practitioners. Often, software developers are the ones who build these types of platforms in the hopes that they add value to the work of practitioners. In the case of KoBo, a team of seasoned practitioners are fully in the drivers seat. The result is a highly dedicated, customized and relevant solution.

Phuong and Patrick first piloted handheld digital data collection in 2007 in Northern Uganda. This early experience informed the development of KoBo which continues to be driven by actual field-based needs and challenges such as limited technical know-how. In short, KoBo provides an integrated suite of applications for handheld data collection that are specifically designed for a non-technical audience, ie., the vast majority of human rights and humanitarian practitioners out there. This suite of applications enable users to collect and analyze field data in virtually real-time.

KoBoForm allows you to build multimedia surveys for data collection purposes, integrating special datatypes like bar-codes, images and audio. Time stamps and geo-location via GPS let you know exactly where and when the data was collected (important for monitoring and evaluation, for example). KoBoForm’s optional data constraints and skip logic further ensure data accuracy. KoBoCollect is an Android-based app based on ODK. Surveys built with KoBoForm are easily uploaded to any number of Android phones sporting the KoBoCollect app, which can also be used offline and automatically synched when back in range. KoBoSync pushes survey data from the Android(s) to your computer for data analysis while KoBoMap lets you display your results in an interactive map with a user-friendly interface. Importantly, KoBoMap is optimized for low-bandwidth connections.

The KoBo platform has been used in to conduct large scale population studies in places like the Central African Republic, Northern Uganda and Liberia. In total, Phuong and Patrick have interviewed more than 25,000 individuals in these countries using KoBo, so the tool has certainly been tried and tested. The resulting data, by the way, is available via this data-visualization portal. The team is  currently building new features for KoBo to apply the tool in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). They are also collaborating with UNDP to develop a judicial monitoring project in the DRC using KoBoToolbox, which will help them “think through some of the requirements for longitudinal data collection and tracking of cases.”

In sum, the expert team behind KoBo is building these software solutions first and foremost for their own field work. As Patrick notes here, “the use of these tools was instrumental to the success of many of our projects.” This makes all the difference vis-a-vis the resulting technology.

18 responses to “The KoBo Platform: Data Collection for Real Practitioners

  1. Is there a very clear technical break piece on how and why KoBo differs from ODK? The goals and approach seem so similar, and being open source, could build off each other directly. Is there some substantial technical difference? Or is it philosophical, personality? I recently had to evaluate mobile data collection options, and didn’t have time to actually jump into the code and community to understand the differences…

  2. Patrick, thank you for your feed back and thoughts on KoBoToolbox. Over the years we tested a number of approaches for digital data collection. KoBoCollect, the mobile application to collect data is based on ODK and javarosa. The other tools that we have developed and are developing are all compatible because it makes more sense! KoBoForm for example is arguably the easiest and most advanced form builder out there. It supports complex skipping patterns or validation without requiring programming skills. KoBoSync was developed to facilitate the transfer of completed forms to a computer when there is no network access.
    We worked as researchers long before we started developing the technology and the amazing team of programmers have worked with us collecting thousands of interviews in the field. This too helps us understand and provide adequate support, especially for those working in the humanitarian and human rights field.

  3. I’m a developer on KoBo, so I thought I would chime in with some answers on the technical differences between ODK and KoBo. ODK is the open-source project that KoBo is based on, and we are huge supporters of the fantastic work from Open Data Kit. In the spirit of open source, we’ve added some features to their work to provide extra features.
    KoBo has support for Cascading Selections, or itemsets, which is a feature that allows you to ask a question, then filter options in a subsequent question by that answer. This is most commonly used in surveys where a set of questions asks; Country, State, City. Once the user supplies the State, then the City options are limited to Cities in that State.
    This feature is supported in KoBoCollect, the Android application for entering data, as well as KoBoForm, the Xform designer that let’s non-programmers create surveys that will run in KoBoCollect.
    KoBoForm is also different from Open Data Kit in it’s very comprehensive GUI that allows users to build complex skip logic and data validation into a survey without having to do any programming. It’s all natural language click and select. Very easy and user friendly.
    KoBo provides a complete toolchain for users to get from formulating the question, to analyzing the resulting data. It’s a holistic take on data collection.
    We’re still tightly tied in to Open Data Kit, and when they release a new version of their software, we update KoBoCollect to benefit from their fixes and new features. We also share our improvements back with ODK so that they can incorporate KoBo features into ODK. It’s a great example of open source cooperation.

  4. I wanted to chime in having recently implemented a mobile data collection project using Kobo Toolbox with DAI-implemented, USAID funded Food and Enterprise Development program in Liberia and share some experiences.
    1) I was extremely impressed with the level of support the Kobo staff provided (thank you Neil Hendrick). They were more than willing answer questions,and help out in a pinch. I can’t tell you how much this helped.
    2) We encountered a number of significant implementation issues that weren’t evident in our conversations with the team or in pre-testing. These issues ultimately delayed our implementation and led to a number of sleepless nights. I won’t go into the issues here, but they were substantial enough that it required someone on site who was 1)comfortable editing xforms, 2) relying on Kobo staff (thank you!) or 3)redoing the survey from scratch. Overall this turned out o.k. for the baseline process since we had significant technical support and drank lots of caffeine. However, in no way would this be something I’d recommend to our project staff until the issues are addressed.
    3) The web-based user interface was extremely intuitive to our M&E staff. It’s a breeze to train on. However, for surveys beyond 25 questions, I am more attracted to excel-based forms that are then converted into a format to use on your Android phone. It’s a nightmare to copy and paste 100+ questions into a web-based form. I wouldn’t even want to do 50. Also, the lack of ability to see a text overview of your survey means that it’s difficult to share for edits or print off back-up paper forms.

    I commend the Kobo Toolbox team, and others out there such as the ODK, Episurveyor, and Formhub folks, for creating accessible tools that respond to practical needs. To me, there is not yet one ODK based tool that ‘stands beyond’ the others. All have their relative strengths and weaknesses and each team has a unique vision of where their product is going. Working with Kobo Toolbox helped launch DAI’s ongoing conversation about data collection tools and started further dialogues with partners in Liberia. Before you decide on one platform for your project or organization, I highly recommend identifying your primary goals and staff capacity, speaking in depth to previous implementers, and testing out a few platforms with a complicated sample survey. Eric Couper, with AFSIS/Columbia University, has a great blog ( documenting his experience implementing FormHub in Tanzania and was also an instrumental help to us.

    Happy to share any of our training materials and contribute to the community’s experience: jaclyn _carlsen at dai dot com

  5. alertsconnect

    Hi Patrick

    Great article!
    Kobo reminds me of Episurveyor. I haven’t done a side by side comparison but they seem very similar.
    Episurveyor is not open to playing around with though.
    I’m keen to see when either of them can include photo and signature fields. Then we’re really rocking on some applications!
    Episurveyor user guide.

  6. alertsconnect

    Hi Patrick
    Another fantastic tool!
    It looks similar to Episurveyor which I played with a couple of years ago
    except they’re not open to playing with.
    I’m keen to see if/when a signature field and photo field could be included. Would be tremendous to track supply of relief items to end users for example.
    Also for bringing a census into the modern world

    Dave Leng

  7. Jaclyn, this is great feedback for us at KoBoToolbox. We take a lot of time for support because we realize jumping from paper to digital data collection is not an easy step. We also realize that the entire process is not yet as user friendly as we would like it to be. We only released KoBoToolbox publicly recently but have used it for our own work for a long time (check out http://www.peacebuildingdata,org for the research part of our work) – the fascinating part has been for us to see how other people use KoBoToolbox and what their requirements are. This has created a large number of feature requests that we try to address – funding for this of course remains a major problem and we are always happy to get some help from fellow programmers who can volunteer some time.

    Alerts – I am glad to report that picture and videos can be captured within surveys – we have also commonly used QR codes for beneficiary tracking (i.e. repeated surveys with same respondents required scanning a unique identifier in the form of a QRcode oon a plastic ID that was distributed to each individual.)


  8. Hello! My name is Sasha and I am working on a project in the FXB building at the HSPH and our team is attempting to use KoBo to collect data for our 12 month follow up. To the best of our understanding, KoBo should be able to directly import surveys that have been translated from excel through ODK. However, I have been having many issues in trying to get the file to load. Is there something that I am doing wrong? The steps that I am doing are as follows….
    1) I click menu,
    2) Then click load form from file
    3) I select the conversion file given by ODK that is saved to my computer and say upload
    4) It processes for a while, and then finally pops up with…


    Failed to parse: error on line 1 at column 1: Document is empty”

    Which makes no sense because I can open the document and see that it is not empty. The same thing occurs when I try to load the file by copying and pasting the text and telling it to import it from there.

    If anyone has any insight into why this is happening, I would really appreciate it. I still need to add in the skip logic once the rest of the form has been loaded onto Kobo and I really don’t want to have to go back and copy and paste all of the other questions in if I can avoid it.


  9. We are a NGO interested in getting support by an experiemented user of KoBo for a project we are just starting on community security in Conakry. If anyone is interested to work with us on registering a questionnaire, testing it, and provide in Conakry a week of training while providing distance support during the field work, we are open to evaluate an offer. Please contact me at We intend to start in the next coming weeks. All the best,

  10. Hello, my name is Ferdinand, I am from Haiti. I am trying KoBo now, it works great online, but it fails to load offline.
    By the way, Is there a way to add a similar check question in KoBo Form
    By exanple:
    Check Question 18 If Married yes—– Go to 23
    If Married No —– Go to Question 33

  11. Ferdinand,
    Pvinck knows how to deal with these questions. What I would find great is that this site offers a community of knowledge where answers are shared publicly. This could be useful for a great deal of people. Patrick, a community would be great.
    Thanks, Dominique

  12. Hello, I am part of the US based startup with the focus on the medical field (currently in the stealth mode). We would like to use the Kobo platform as a base for our software stack, but we are planning to heavily customize it for our private flow. I would be interested in finding an offshore software development company that could become a long term partner for us. We would need dedicated resources to continue customization and feature development. If anyone has recommendation, please send them my way.

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