Tablets cure slow data headache

Media research company ACNielsen believes it is one of the first in its industry in the world to use tablet PCs to survey the newspaper and magazine reading habits of a nation.

ACNielsen’s director of readership research Andrew Whitney, who attends a worldwide readership conference every two years, says of the 50 or so other countries represented, New Zealand is the only one that appears to arm interviewers with tablets. Two or three are using notebook computers, he says.

The benefit of the Windows CE tablet chosen by ACNielsen for its new CAPI (computer-assisted personal interviewing) system over a notebook is that because it uses Microsoft’s embedded operating system, as opposed to Windows XP, it switches on immediately and doesn’t have to boot up.

The tablet, made by U.S. company Convergent Technology, is A5-size and doesn’t have a hard drive (it has 64MB in main memory and 32MB in flash), although it does have an expansion slot. It offers a high-resolution screen (800 x 600) without the bulk of a bigger tablet.

“The size and form factor makes it easier for interviewers to use,” says Whitney.

After completing a mini-pilot with 10 interviewers, Auckland-based ACNielsen this week launches a trial with 50 of the US$687 devices. It will then roll the new survey system out to 100 interviewers in time to start the 2004 National Readership Survey.

Until now the survey, which involves 12,000 interviews (which will increase to 15,000), has been paper-based. An ACNielsen client, the Newspaper Advertising Bureau, had an issue with how long it was taking to deliver results.

“We looked at ways to reduce the time it takes to get data from results into reports and on to their desks,” says Whitney.

Nine months ago the company brought in Auckland mobile application developer Orbiz to scope the project. Once what was needed had been agreed upon, a team of four Orbiz staff took several months to develop the software using agile methodology, which meant developers were in constant touch with ACNielsen, getting feedback throughout the process.

The questionnaire software was developed in Microsoft Compact Framework .Net using Microsoft Visual Studio.Net. The tablet also runs Microsoft SQL CE, a full relational database which sits on the device.

The amount of questions, checking and change meant that it needed a complex database, says Orbiz technology chief Lukas Svoboda.

Once interviewers have conducted the day’s surveys they can plug the tablet into their phone jack at home and synchronize the information back to ACNielsen’s server in Auckland.

Whitney says the reaction from the pilot interviewers, who had a two-day training session on using the new system, was “fantastic”.

He says while the paper-based survey takes 40 minutes to conduct, experience from overseas using notebooks has suggested this could be cut by 10 minutes.

The software prompts and guides the interviewers so that incorrect data can’t be entered during the interview. Then when the data is sent back it doesn’t have to be manually entered into the ACNielsen system.

Whitney says so far the mini-trial indicates that the interviewers are able to concentrate more on the people they’re talking to, which should give increased response rates.

“There are clear cost benefits in terms of data processing and we feel that the potential of these devices is enormous in terms of research in New Zealand.” After one of the triallists dropped a tablet, it was decided there was a need for a tough case, so ACNielsen commissioned Auckland-based Nutshell to develop a folder. Another benefit is that it looks as though interviewers are only carrying around a small folder rather than an expensive laptop, says Whitney.

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