October 01, 2012

Mobile Apps and Research Methods

By Sally Raskoff

Every now and then new technology will change something that humans do in very radical ways. We've been collecting information from people scientifically with surveys, interviews, and observations by using paper and pen, then computers, and now, potentially, mobile apps.

Recently a new phone app, the Kinsey Reporter was introduced that collects data from users on sexual behavior. Just a few hours later it was pulled from the marketplace by the university that houses the Kinsey Institute, developer of the app.

Alfred Kinsey revolutionized the scientific study of sexual behavior, and the Kinsey Institute has continued generating much research that helps us better understand human sexuality. However, the issue of collecting good quality data on sexual behavior continues to be a challenge.

Enter mobile apps, which allow those who are interested to download the app and proceed to enter incidents and opinions about their sexual experiences.

Human research must involve ethical restraints such as informed consent and no harm to participants and that includes protecting anonymity when possible.

Informed consent rests with giving respondents a chance to say, “No, Thanks,” when they are aware that they may be participating in scientific research. People must know that research will involve collecting information from them and their consent – or lack of withdrawal of consent – is given.

This is dicey, since if you inform people you are studying them and let them know what you are studying, it can get in the way of their typical behavior or opinions. Reactivity, also known as the Hawthorne Effect, can alter research results. This effect is named after the ubiquitous results of rising productivity at a factory when university researchers studied the workers. In one unit, productivity kept rising no matter what the researchers manipulated because the workers wanted to please them.

Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) exist to evaluate and approve research proposals so that the human subjects are protected. Most will exempt a study from having to do an overt informed consent form when the research fully protects the identity of the participants.

This is the main reason given for the disappearance of the Kinsey Reporter app. While the IRB at Indiana University gave the go-ahead for this method of data collection, their new General Counsel hadn’t seen it and is giving it a review before it is re-released.

The news reports state that the app will only collect location through the GPS, the data the user enters, and time and date stamps. However, protecting data mined from phones can be more complex as other information can be hacked if certain codes are included in the data collection.

If the app is cleared, it could bring quite a revolution in how research is conducted.

On the other hand, there are clear limitations to this method, some of which are shared with internet surveys. These methods are limited to those who opt in and who have the technology to participate. While we may assume that everyone has access to computers and smart phones, that’s not true.

For example, we’ve had debates on our campus about getting rid of the printed schedule of classes since some argue that every potential student already knows how to use the internet. Our campus is not unique in this debate as most have moved to reducing or eliminating printing schedules and catalogs. The standard argument presumes all students can use the internet in order to advocate for eliminating the printing – although the underlying rationale is to save money as our budget disappears through ongoing cuts. Due to those cuts, we have eliminated most of the printed schedules. As a  result,  more students do not know where to find information, classrooms, or faculty (when their phone batteries die or they don’t get service in our buildings) and the disappearance of students who couldn’t get the information they needed to register in a class.

The Pew Internet and American Life Project has some interesting data on the “digital divide,” and how some groups use the internet more than others (hose with disabilities, older adults, those who prefer to speak Spanish rather than English, those with less than a high school education, and those with income less than $30,000 a year).  While many groups are increasing their use of mobile devices, there are is still a great divide. In addition, mobile devices do not have the same functionality that computers have when it comes to internet access and other digital functions.

If we are serious about studying – or including – a wide range of people, we cannot assume that digital data collection is representative. If we realize the limitations of such data collection or we are interested only in those who have access to such technology, then this method will be extremely useful.

Do you think giving out mobile devices with the app installed to a sample of people without such technology would help make the data collection more representative? Can you think of any ways to alleviate the shortcomings of this method of data collection?


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I do agree that technology will change something that humans do in very radical ways.

I commend your research for I learned a lot of things.

Greetings, neat webpage you've in here.

The comparison is very good. I like the article and for the share.

This is good information. we will going forward heavily rely on technology in education and research


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