Paper Data Collection: An Environmental Disaster

The initial motivation behind developing the Magpi mobile data collection system was to increase the speed with which data could be collected and analyzed for public health. I’ve come to understand, though, that inefficiency is not the only problem with the paper-based data collection that Magpi is designed to replace: paper-based data is an environmental disaster. Frequently hundreds of thousands or even millions of sheets of office paper are used (then, typically, warehoused or just discarded) for just one field survey.

Imagine just one single survey of 5000 households involving 20 sheets of paper per household. That is roughly the equivalent of 12 trees cut down, just for that one single survey. With thousands and thousands of these surveys, and other data collection activities, going on each year – this represents hundreds of thousands of trees that would be saved if the data was collected instead on mobile phones or tablets (which are in many cases going to be produced for other purposes anyway).

But wasting trees is not the only way in which paper-based data collection is an environmental burden: because it is heavy, paper increases fuel costs for all the vehicles that are used to carry it to the field. In the example above of a 5000 household survey, those 100,000 sheets of paper weigh about 1100 pounds (500 kg) – and the EPA suggests that every additional hundred pounds in a vehicle reduces its fuel economy by 2%.  Imagine how much costly additional fuel must be purchased, often by cash-strapped ministries. Imagine if that money went towards extra vaccines, or training, rather than to purchase more fuel.

Finally, the production of every sheet of paper can use as little as 1.5 cups (.35 liters) or as much as 3 gallons (11.3 L) of water, making our household survey responsible for the consumption of as “little” as 10,000 gallons of water (about 38,000 L) – or possibly as much as 300,000 gallons (more than one million liters).

To review, a single 5000 household survey consumes:

12 trees

Thousands of gallons of fuel

Tens or hundreds of thousands of gallons of water

And that is just for one single survey; can you imagine how many trees, how much fuel, and how much water was consumed for the US census in 2010 – which was done on paper (despite the very large number of Americans that have access to the internet)?

Or how much is consumed by international development and global health, which still collects almost all its data on paper?

Taking the Paper Out of Paperwork

Anywhere paper-based data collection forms are needed - from field research to construction sites to field inspections of equipment - Magpi takes the paper (and a lot of the work) out of paperwork.

Download Paper, Paper Everywhere?