Decisions, Decisions... Which system should I choose?

The recent launch of the updated KoBo Toolbox adds an additional system to consider when trying to determine the best (free) hosted solution for your project. I’m not affiliated with any of the products listed here. I’m only a user trying to find the best solution.

Mobile data collection for humanitarian and public health projects really started to take off with the invention of Open Data Kit which is a collaboration between Google and the University of Washington. ODK allows smartphone users to submit information to a central server (ODK Aggregate), drastically scaling paper based form collection. A number of open standards have been developed around open data collection including OpenRosa, XForm and XLSForm. We’ll cover these in subsequent sections. Years later, methods have been validated, a number of innovations have occurred and others have built on top of the Open Data Kit platform including formhub,, and KoBo Toolbox. I have to mention that there are many others and a full list is available at the JHUGmI mHealth Platform Compendium, which I manage.

These systems all use a common XForm standard, allowing for data sharing across systems and organizations. This standard is powerful as we work to integrate data across organizations in to benefit public, global and humanitarian activities. Additionally, the community has developed an XLSForm standard that makes form authoring easier than writing raw XML. XLSforms allow you to create your surveys in a spreadsheet that is supported by many of these platforms. This spreadsheet is converted to standard XForm and entered into the survey deployment system. XLSForm is supported by all the major players in this space.

Open Data Kit allows you to setup your own server and manage data collection yourself. It is not a hosted solution. The original developers of ODK have created Nafundi which is an organization that specializes in mobile deployments of ODK. I was fortunate to meet Yaw at a Google Earth Outreach event and he is incredibly knowledgable and talented. I recommend contacting him if you’re interested in anything ODK.

Development of formhub
The Columbia University Sustainable Engineering Lab created formhub as an internal system to aide in small-scale offline data collection. They built a system on the django web framework that uses the ODK Collect Android app to interact with the system for mobile data collection and Enketo for offline web data collection. The SEL team created and provided formhub free to users as a hosted Software-as-a-Service platform. It was an instant hit and there are over 3 million form submissions. On June 9th, 2014 they announced that “the data collection needs that spawned formhub are coming to an end” and have announced that the future of the web service is uncertain (Source). They have created a number of virtualboxes that allow users to download formhub and run it on their own just like what’s available with Open Data Kit.

On to Ona
A number of the formhub developers joined together and created Ona, which is based in Nairobi and New York City. Recognizing the need of their customers for a hosted mobile data collection system, they immediately began work on improving the scalability of formhub and rebranded it at It’s currently available as a free service. They have hinted that a greater product is under development including improved user management and a rewrite of code. The great news is that your surveys will be supported as they move to the updated system. However, they may have to introduce some type of freemium model to ensure continued support (Source).

KoBo Toolbox
The KoBo Toolbox has been around for many years supported by the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative. They recently revamped it to allow for data collection in humanitarian crisis response. You are now able to create a free hosted account at More importantly, you can create a professionally supported organizational account supported by UN OCHA. The KoBo Toolbox is written so that users can contribute end-to-end solutions in a plug and play environment. Form creation is done with the updated KoBoForm, survey deployment is done with KoBoCat and data collection from a desktop computer is done with the new Enketo-Express (Source). Note that Enketo-Express is currently under heavy development and will soon allow for data collection to be done on a computer that’s not connected to the internet. More on Enketo in the next section.

Enketo is a web based data collection client that allows for offline data collection through a web browser on any device. It adjusts for different screen sizes and touchscreen ability. When you visit the survey page the first time, Enketo automatically ‘installs’ the survey in your browser, allowing you to collect data on the device both online and offline. It automatically sync to the server when an internet connection returns. The addition of Enketo to your system turns a mobile data collection system into an enterprise solution. This is one of the first companies to create a fully Offline-Enabled SaaS Solution. See my post for a description of the term. Enketo is available for deployment with your independent ODK and formhub installations and is automatically embedded in and KoBo Toolbox. A new, fully open source version of Enketo called Enketo-Express, is under active development that allows organizations to collect information from computers that aren’t connected to the internet. I have used Enketo on formhub, Ona and KoBo and can’t wait to see where it goes next!

Dimagi and CommCare
This post wouldn’t be complete if I didn’t mention the excellent work of Dimagi who has been working with the University of Washington on ODK for years. Dimagi is a privately held social enterprise that has developed numerous products and frameworks that help organizations deliver services in Low and Middle Income Countries. Most relavent to this article is CommCare which provides offline-enabled data collection and team management for Community Health Workers (CHWs). CommCare is one of the few systems that allow for two-way data synchronization across groups of CHWs and case management for clients.

Comparing The Systems
Here’s a table that can help you understand the differences of CommCare, KoBo Toolkit and Ona. These three systems offer hosted solutions. Note that this table will change as features develop, especially when the new version of Ona is released.

KoBo Toolkit
Form Creation Formbuilder Interface or upload XLSform KoBoForm Interface Upload XLSForm
Google Play Store Application for Offline Data Collection CommCare ODK v2 KoBo Collect ODK Collect
Mobile-Optimized Offline Data Collection through the Browser
(No App Download Required)
Not Available Free using Enketo Free using Enketo
Integrated Offline Desktop Data Collection Premium using CloudCare Free using Enketo Free using Enketo
Form Library CommCare Exchange Application Library Uses a Question Library instead of a Form Library Form Gallery
Case Management with Two-Way Data Sync to mobile devices Available Not Available Not Available
Workforce Management Available Could Not Find Info Not Available
Export Formats XLS, CSV ZIP XLS, CSV, ZIP, KML, SAV ZIP XLS, CSV, ZIP, KML, SAV ZIP, CSV ZIP, Google docs, XLS reports
API Access Premium Service Could Not Find Info Free

Which one should I choose?
I know it’s on your mind, but I’m not going to answer this question. Each of these systems has a different mission and active development. I suggest you create an account and test them out or contact me. I’m incredibly excited on these recent developments and can’t wait to see what’s next!

Contact me if you'd like to talk about this post.