Techno time

Will the union of CAPI and mobile phone technology work?
Tim Macer reports.

Sooner or later, someone was going to find a decent way to marry cellular communications with CAPI, and it seems vows may have been exchanged with a new mobile CAPI product from wireless communications specialist OpenAir.
Based around an existing American MCAPI solution called AccessPoint, OpenAir exploits its understanding of cellular data communications in providing an integrated wireless CAPI system that works out of the box.
For hardware, it uses one of the new personal organisers with inbuilt wireless communications like the Handspring Treo that runs under the Palm operating system, or O2’s own XDA that uses Microsoft’s Windows CE. The clever trick is that OpenAir gets you a low cost data communications tariff using the newer GPRS standard rather than WAP. In GPRS, you pay for the actual data you transfer, not the length of the call. Since the amounts of data are relatively small, it means costs more akin to a first class stamp than a motorbike courier. OpenAir, as well as providing the customary support and service of a software provider, also happens to be an airtime service provider for O2.
With such a complex and fast growing area of technology, having a single supplier to deal with could be a real advantage. OpenAir estimates a £12-a-month tariff, which includes the data charges, would be sufficient for heavy daily use. For another £10, you can add a voice plan, giving interviewers the added convenience and security of a fully functioning mobile phone.
Another benefit of the system is that it is 100% web-based. You can either install and run it as an ‘enterprise’ solution on your own web server, or simply use OpenAir as an application service provider, and design and administer your own surveys on the ASP’s web server. One powerful feature of the system is the real-time reporting and immediate availability of data from live projects on the secure web server.
It is also very simple to design surveys and prepare them for data collection - in fact, probably too simple for some users. The set up tool, which is also web browser-based, needs only ten minutes to learn, and perhaps another five to learn its many limitations. In the version I saw, routing is limited to skips from one answer to another question: no ‘and’, ‘or’, or ‘not’, and no way to test or even validate numerics.
Neither can you ‘pipe’ or substitute text from one answer to another question, nor do sensible rotations, nor re-use questions or answers without typing them in again.
OpenAir
Pros
  • Handheld interviewing with instant wireless upload/download
  • Uses inexpensive packet-based GPRS tariff
  • Web based administration tools
  • Good support for capturing openends
Cons
  • Over-simplistic questionnaire design module
  • Rudimentary routing
  • Output only in Excel format
The air would be thick with expletives if presented to the average CATI or CAPI script writer. However, version two is due out this month, which addresses some of these issues, and a version three is due early next year, which looks altogether more comprehensive.

“I like the idea that I can get on the internet at any time and get real data. And when we send the work to our interviewers, we've found it is cheaper to mail Palm Pilots than surveys on paper.”

Where simple does work well is in the interviewer interface. Very little training is involved: the application on the handheld will automatically check the download area using its wireless internet link, pick up the assignments and let the interviewer start work.
Once the download is completed, it does not matter if the handheld is out of radio range. Data is only uploaded at the end of the interview, and if communications fail, it waits until it can send the data. This is useful since GPRS, sold as an ‘always on’ system, has a habit of being ‘often off’ too, as the signal strength varies.
Openends - the nadir of early MCAPI products - are a joy. The XDA’s handwriting recognition tool, if you are disciplined enough to print rather than

write, is as good if not better than typing. There are other options too, such as pop-up keyboards, a ‘blackberry’ keyboard on the PDA or even portable folding keyboards for hall test situations.
Most existing users of Access Point are in the US where, surprisingly, GPRS is a few years behind Europe, so companies tend to use analogue modems or the hot-sync cradle to exchange surveys and data.
Olena Welling, Project Manager for Campos Market Research in Pittsburgh PA, has used Access Point in this way, and found it very convenient and cost effective way to administer an in-store research project tracking a major retailer’s store refit programme. She comments: “I like the idea that I can get on the internet at any time and get real data. And when we send the work to our interviewers, we’ve found it is cheaper to mail Palm Pilots than surveys on paper.”
Welling feels the technology reduces errors, and despite the limitations already noted, does yield good quality data without delays for data entry, which she observes “can really cut into the time you have allowed for analysis and interpretation”.

OpenAir: www.openair.biz

Tim Macer writes as an independent specialist and advisor in software for market research. His website is at www.meaning.uk.com

Published in Research, the magazine of the Market Research Society, December 2002, Issue 439.
© Copyright Tim Macer/Market Research Society 2002. All rights reserved. Reproduced with permission.
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