The 5 best data collection tools in 2020: The best apps for gathering data in the field

By Emily Eposito - Last updated August 14, 2020 -

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How do you track expenses for a repair job or collect data at a trade show? While there are dozens of form builders and survey tools that can help you solicit information from others, these tools aren't always designed for receiving complex data or working offline.

Instead, you need a tool designed specifically for data collection, so your team members can submit photos, GPS location, and signatures on the go and on any device. You also want an app that can help you act on that information, whether that's exporting the data into reports to share with others or syncing with your other software.

This article will walk you through the most powerful data collection tools to help you optimize your team's workflow, get more done, and reduce repetitive, manual data entry.

The 5 best data collection tools

  • Device Magic for pre-filling form data
  • Fulcrum for geolocation with custom maps
  • Magpi for interactive voice data collection
  • FastField for exporting data into Word and PDF templates
  • JotForm for accepting payments

What makes a great data collection tool?

Data collection forms let you capture almost any type of information, without having to worry about a WiFi signal.

The five apps here, however, offer more than that. They address some of the most complex issues with data collection, like helping you analyze thousands of GPS coordinates or ensuring your forms are accessible to everyone. You'll also be able to use Zapier with all these apps to integrate the tools you already use into your workflow.

We tested more than 15 of the most popular data collection apps and looked for ones that:

  • Offer a unique feature above and beyond basic data collection
  • Have a low barrier to entry
  • Help you scale or automate a workflow

This roundup focuses purely on data collection software. While you can use traditional surveys or polls to gather information, they are not catered to collecting and reporting on diverse, complex data types.

Best data collection app for pre-filling form data

Device Magic (Web, iOS, Android)

Pre-fill form data with Device Magic's Dispatch feature.

Typing on your phone can be slow, prone to mistakes, and nearly impossible if you're also trying to juggle other tasks. Device Magic's forms make sure your team doesn't have to type any more than absolutely necessary by allowing you to pre-fill form fields with the Dispatch feature.

Let's say you created a repair form for your crew to report their work. You could pre-fill the form fields with the information you already know (repair description, parts needed, and price estimate), and your crew would only need to fill in the final details about the work they did.

Before you can send a Dispatch to your team, you first need to create the form. From the Device Magic dashboard on the web app, navigate to the Forms tab, and click the New form button. You'll see 16 form field options on the left side to collect things like barcodes, images, the date, or location. Simply drag and drop the ones you want to use into the white editor in the middle of the page. For each field, you can customize the label (or question title) and preview the form as you go. Once you're happy with the form, save it, and return to the Device Magic dashboard.

Next, go to the Dispatches tab, and click the New Dispatch button. You'll see a four-step setup process where you can select the form you want to deploy with pre-filled answers and which device(s) to send it to. Then, you can customize the form name and description.

The real magic happens at step three, when you can populate form answers. You'll see all the fields from the form you selected in step one, for which you can type in the answers that will automatically appear as responses. You can pre-populate as many or as few fields as you want. For example, you could pre-populate the "email address" field with each person's contact information or the "image" field with graphics you have on file that are associated with the form.

Finally, select whether you want to send the Dispatch immediately or schedule it for later. Then, click Submit Dispatch, and the form will be sent via the mobile app to the devices you identified in step one.

When someone receives the form, it's just as easy for them to add information. They can attach images directly from their phone's photo library, add their signature, or sketch diagrams, then send them along with the rest of the form data. They won't even need to input their location, since Device Magic automatically logs where the form was filled out.

Note that the whole Dispatch process must be done by an administrator on the web app. The mobile apps are used to collect data from your team members in the field, but not to create new forms or send Dispatches.

As an added benefit, Device Magic integrates with Zapier, so you can do things like automatically send a Slack message to your team when you receive a new form submission or add new Google Sheets rows based on form data.

Device Magic Pricing: Free 14-day trial of all features; The free plan includes unlimited forms and submissions for one device. The Dispatch feature and Zapier integrations are only available with the Enterprise plan (get a custom quote).

Best data collection app for geolocation and custom maps

Fulcrum (Web, iOS, Android)

Overlay form entries on basemaps and custom map layers with Fulcrum.
Image from Fulcrum

Fulcrum's advanced geolocation features allow you to add context and detail about a user's work and field data submitted through forms. You can use basemaps from online or offline sources, like Google Street View, satellite imagery, and OpenStreetMap, and custom map servers or your own offline map packages. You can also plot your form entries on maps that contain the data you need—something especially important for canvassing, property surveys, or census polls.

For example, organizations in construction, environmental, and transportation industries need to gather many types of information from a form, with GPS location being one of the most important data points. Normally, they would simply receive a text-based list of GPS locations, which is difficult to analyze and understand. With Fulcrum, they can overlay those GPS locations onto a variety of different maps to better understand and visualize patterns from their data.

After you sign up for Fulcrum, you'll choose whether to build your form from scratch with a drag-and-drop editor or select an app template from the library (note that Fulcrum refers to forms as "Apps" throughout the UI). You can collect almost any type of data, including audio clips, signatures, videos, or barcodes.

Once you've created the form on the web, you'll need to access it from your mobile device to collect responses. Log in to the iOS or Android app, and you'll see all your forms displayed on the first screen.

As you start receiving form submissions, you can begin to overlay the submission locations onto different basemaps and map packages.

In the iOS version of the Fulcrum app, click the map icon in the lower-left corner. By default, you'll see dropped pins on the street view of Google Maps. If you click the layers icon on the right-hand side, you can change the basemap view to aerial/satellite, hybrid, or terrain. You could, for example, plot form data about new homes being built onto a Google Street View map to see how your building plan will impact the entire neighborhood.

You'll also see an icon for layers at the bottom of the screen. Clicking the Layers tab will allow you to access custom layers that you have either uploaded directly to your device or added to Fulcrum through the web app.

If you need to share your form data, Fulcrum allows you to export it in ten different formats from the web app, including Excel, CSV, and Shapefile. You can also create PDF reports from your iOS or Android app and share them via email, SMS, Dropbox, or any other supported app on your device.

And because Fulcrum integrates with Zapier, you can more easily act on form data using your favorite apps, like creating a task when a new Fulcrum record is created or adding a new email subscriber based on form submissions.

Fulcrum Pricing: From $22/user/month for the Essentials plan that includes 20 GB storage.

Best data collection app for interactive voice data collection

Magpi (Web, iOS, Android)

Create interactive voice data collection forms with Magpi.

Digital forms do the job in almost all scenarios. But what if you need to collect data from a less digitally-literate population? Or from people with visual impairments? Magpi offers a unique voice-first experience that's just as easy to set up as a digital form. The feature is called IVR, or interactive voice response, and it allows you to deploy your forms as interactive voice phone calls, with respondents answering by pressing the phone's numeric keypad.

Magpi IVR forms use the same form designer as a digital form, with one key difference: You need to remember that you're essentially writing a script for the artificial intelligence to read aloud. For example, in the form designer, you can either enter a prompt for each question type or add a label, an information-only field that doesn't require a response.

For a standard digital form, a prompt or label can be as simple as stating the question. For IVR, however, they need to mimic a conversation, so your first label would need to account for an introduction and explanation of the survey. And your last label would need to thank the participant and end the conversation.

You'll also need to pay attention to the question types you use. For example, GPS and photo questions wouldn't apply to voice responses. On the other hand, labels, radio buttons, and numeric question types work well with voice. Skip logic applies to all question types.

When you're ready to deploy your IVR form, navigate to the Share tab in the form builder, and then click the Interactive Voice Responses sub-tab. Enter the recipient phone numbers, select the language from a list of 26 options, specify the timing, and click the Initiate IVR Sharing button. The calls will be automatically made within 60 seconds of the specified time.

Once the respondent is finished answering, the form data will appear in the Magpi Data tab, just like with any other Magpi form.

You can also extend Magpi's capabilities with Magpi's Zapier integrations, allowing you to more easily connect form data to other apps, like Google Sheets or Excel.

Magpi Pricing: Free for up to 15 data collectors; $500/month for the Pro plan, which includes SMS and IVR data collection; $1,500/month for the Enterprise plan for access to Fulcrum's Zapier integrations.

Best data collection app for exporting data into Word and PDF templates

FastField (Web, iOS, Android)

Export form data directly into a PDF or Word template with FastField.

Once you've collected the data you need, you then need to figure out how to present it to stakeholders or clients. For some scenarios, like home repairs or site inspections, you would need to aggregate field workers' notes and assessments into a professional PDF to share with the homeowner or facility manager. This is traditionally a manual exercise, requiring you to export the data and copy and paste it into your branded template. FastField, however, eliminates this repetitive task by allowing you to export data directly into a Word or PDF template you designed.

It's easier to export form data into a Word doc because FastField gives you a "starting template" to customize, complete with all the "fieldkeys" for each form variable that will map the correct data from FastField to the Word doc. For example, our original form had a Submitted By field, and FastField converted that field into this fieldkey: $userName$.

Once you have a form created in FastField, click the Reporting button from the editor, and then click on the Custom tab. Click Generate and Download to download a Word doc starting template.

The initial Word report will simply have a table with your form's field titles on the left and the fieldkeys on the right, which will eventually populate the responses collected in FastField. You can then add your company branding, add photos, or edit the layout, font, colors, etc. When you have customized the template to your liking, navigate back to the Reporting settings, and under the Custom tab, upload the template to the Upload Word Predefined Report section. You would need to repeat this process for each form you create, as the Word template is unique to the fields in the specific form.

Once you've set up this process for the form, you can then directly export any form submission into the Word template you created. Go to the Data tab on the top, and click Submissions. Select your form from the dropdown list. You'll see each individual submission for that form. On the left side of each submission, click the arrow and select Word or Word - Editable as your exported outputs. FastFields will map the form data that is housed inside the app to the fieldkeys in the Word template.

You can also replicate this set up with PDF templates, although FastField doesn't provide a starting template for you to work from. Instead, you would need to set up your own PDF using Adobe Acrobat, adding the correct form fields within Adobe (text field, checkbox, radio button, etc.) on top of your blank PDF document. Because these fields will be populated by data collected by your FastField form, you need to name each PDF form field to match the field's fieldkey within FastField. For more information on this process, read FastField's documentation.

FastField integrates with Zapier, so you can do things like easily share form data with your team in other apps. Here are a couple examples.

FastField Pricing: Free 14-day trial; $20/user/month for unlimited forms.

Best data collection app for accepting payments in mobile forms

JotForm (Web, iOS, Android)

Accept payments in mobile forms with JotForm.

If you're making forms to help complete on-site jobs, solicit donations, or register users for a paid service, you would need to bill customers in a separate app. JotForm lets you accept payments directly from your form, saving you and your customers the hassle of bouncing between apps.

Once you log in to JotForm, you'll be able to create a form from scratch, import an existing PDF or web-based form, or use one of more than 2,000 different templates (there are even 110 payment-specific form templates). Regardless of which option you choose, you'll land on the form editor. Click Add Form Element and then select the Payments tab. You'll see more than 30 payment gateways to choose from, including PayPal, Square, and Stripe. You can only select one payment gateway per form, however there are certain workarounds if you want to offer more than one payment option (for example, you could create one master form that links to different forms based on payment method. Read this JotForm support article for more information).

Each payment gateway will have its own setup process to connect with JotForm, which you will need to complete within JotForm. You'll also need to add "products" within the payment setup (the goods or services that customers will be able to pay for within your form).

When your form is complete, you can share it via URL, get an embed code to add it to your website, email it, download it as a PDF, or connect with more than 30 third-party tools (like WordPress, Facebook, or Shopify) to distribute it directly on that platform.

Once you start getting form submissions, you can automate data entry into other apps with JotForm's Zapier integrations.

JotForm Pricing: Free for five forms, 100 monthly form submissions, and 10 payment submissions; $24/month for the Bronze plan, which includes 25 forms, 1,000 monthly form submissions, and 100 payment submissions.

Whether you're surveying a site or compiling compliance reports, these apps will help you gather the information you need from the right people, stress-free. You no longer have to worry about duplicating data, keeping track of paper forms, or finding an internet connection—all your data will live in one place that your whole team can access at any time.

Building a form looks easy, but you might be surprised to find out how many hidden features form builder apps include. So, before you start building your new form, Chapter 4 will dig into the most powerful, often overlooked form features.

Go to Chapter 4!

Originally written by Matthew Guay, this post was updated in May 2019 and most recently in August 2020.


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