A newly published review on the use of mobile phone technology for nutrition surveillance reveals that there is still much to learn about the contribution mobile phones can make to surveillance of nutrition.
A robust and sustainable nutrition surveillance system - or the systematic and periodic collection of information on nutrition - is vital to the capacity of governments and other stakeholders to respond promptly to nutritional crises and to track their progress in reducing undernutrition.
However, traditional paper-based nutrition surveillance is expensive, time-consuming and often error-prone due to manual data collection and entry.
In recent years, there has been an increasing interest in the role mobile phone technology may play in surveillance systems in poorer areas. It has been speculated that mobile phones may help to lower the cost of data collection, improve data quality, and make data collection and transfer more timely.
Enticed by these potential benefits many organisations and other stakeholders are currently considering introducing mobile phone technology into their routine nutrition surveillance systems.
Lack of rigorous evidence
In a recent desk-based review, IDS set out to critically summarise the existing evidence base on the use of mobile phone technology in nutrition surveillance.
One of our key findings is that there is currently a lack of hard evidence to support the use of mobile phone technology in surveillance and especially in nutrition surveillance.
The evidence that was available was of poor methodological quality and mainly centred on feasibility issues. No rigorous evaluation studies on the use and impact of mobile phone technology on timeliness or data quality were identified, although descriptive evidence suggests that mobile phones may make nutrition surveillance timelier and improve data quality.
Focus on technical aspects of data collection
The majority of the reviewed studies focussed only on technical benefits and challenges of using mobile phone technology in surveillance, actual data utilisation received only minimal attention. Given that underuse of surveillance data is a huge challenge, a better understanding of how mobile phones may improve this essential component of surveillance is urgently needed.
The available descriptive evidence suggests that mobile phones may play an important role in nutrition surveillance. However, to fully realise and understand the potential of mobile phones in this field, the existing evidence gap needs be addressed by well designed and comprehensive evaluation studies.