Chris York - TAB Application - 2020-09-01

Chris York (@seewhy)


What contributions (e.g., issue triage, tech support, documentation, bug fixes) have you made to the ODK community?
I’m a 'well rounded' user of ODK – designing forms, collecting data in the field, downloading and analysing the results. I’ve tried to share my experiences where things have gone wrong, where I’ve got stuck and when I’ve found solutions. I’m reasonably experienced with heuristics, mainly the error side of things. I have tried to contribute ideas for new features or enhancements to existing ones.
I might have made a few people smile, and I have no doubt there have been a few cringes and sharp intakes of breath!

How do you believe your contributions have benefited ODK?
I think that sharing real world examples and scenarios helps to shape the features of ODK. I have also been able to identify features that don’t work as intended, without necessarily helping to solve the issues!

What do you believe the top priorities for ODK are?

  • Supporting the community of users – the forum is an excellent example of ‘cross-fertilisation’ of ideas and mutual support.
  • Keeping documentation up to date as new features are introduced or existing features are modified (sometimes transferring discussions from the forum or signposting those discussions)
  • Improving and simplifying deployment of forms to enumerators who are not very tech-savvy;

In terms of priorities for development I would include:

  • Enhancing spatial data collection tools – so we can easily tell where data was collected;
  • Improving the potential for ‘case management’ or longitudinal / time-series data collection using ODK Collect

How will you help the ODK community accomplish those priorities?
I’m really good at breaking things. I have 20+ years’ experience of field data collection in environmental disciplines so hopefully I can keep a practical eye on developments and help to focus on making it easier for people to use ODK.

I have a reasonable grasp of the underlying logic for data collection, but not the code, so might be able to help.

I will also continue to advocate the use of ODK as an efficient means of data collection - hopefully growing that community further.

How many hours a week can you commit to participating on the TSC?
My workloads vary and I'm self-employed - sometimes I am away for fieldwork for days or (more rarely) weeks at a time... I would aim to contribute at least an hour a week when I'm available.

What other mobile data collection projects, social good projects, or open source projects are you involved with?
I have used mobile data tools since 2007 on pocketPCs and Android phones / tablets. I built forms with Visual CE and Epicollect before finding ODK. I have also used ESRI Collector. Needless to say I am only using ODK these days.

I’ve been involved with setting up and running a small number of charities / non-profit / community groups in my own local area and participated in a few social-justice campaigns. Nothing particularly eye catching, but often time consuming, not always successful, sometimes stressful. Examples would be community growing and recycling initiatives, protecting local health care services, creating and maintaining outdoor recreation facilities.

Please share any links to public resources (e.g., resume, blog, Github) that help support your application.
In lieu of submitting a full CV/resume or online persona here is a summary:

I have a BSc in Geology, an MSc in Science Communication and have almost 30 years work experience in the environment sector. I have worked for the Public Sector, private companies and NGO’s . I have been self-employed since 2006 ( with a wide range of clients in the UK and Ireland. I am based in North East Scotland.

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Hi @seewhy :wave:
What's a key improvement or new functionality that you think would really help in enhancing spatial data collection within ODK?

Hi @danbjoseph
Thanks for your question - apologies for the delay in responding, I've been out in the field for the last two days (using ODK to collect data for a couple of projects).

For me, being able to visualise data on a map in repeat groups in Collect would be a major innovation - it's incredibly useful for checking what / where data has already been collected using a 'single' form, and that has really helped us in some of our recent projects (I redesigned one form part way through data collection when the feature was released because it solved a real life problem!). In my somewhat simple head I hope it would be possible to mark up any geo-data on a map along with the associated fields within the same repeat group / loop (so data shown is not tied to any particular structural level of the form). Likewise being able to see that visualised on the server would be great (crossover with Kobotoolbox in my case, but maybe similar with Central / Aggregate) and easier to share without additional data processing.

Other spatial ideas that I've been dreaming / watching / breaking / requesting include offline vector maps with styling; easier transfer of those layers to the enumerators' devices and maybe a way to switch layer based on a previous question would be helpful (so if you were using the same form in different locations you could activate different base maps rather than one monster map, or collecting different datasets within that same site, show different base data). Our projects are mostly based in areas with poor internet connectivity, so offline maps are key tools, and help us with navigation (yes, actual mountain safety at times, without needing to get my paper map out of the rucksac!) and locating pre-defined data points. I'd also probably like ODK to explore options to reduce the processor load and conserve battery life whilst using geo-tools, but that might just be wishful thinking.

However, as it's an Advisory Board, I think I would be happy to listen to what other users want (and work out ways of helping to gather intelligence and understand those needs), and then try to find solutions that will be most beneficial - it's all very well having pet wants, but I don't see governance as advocating my own needs. Sorry if that sounds sanctimonious.

Hope that helps, apologies for the long-winded response.


Hi @seewhy

Thanks for a detailed application.

How have you been you been advocating the use of ODK as an efficient means of data collection?

Thank you for your participation in the ODK community and your application!

Have you experienced any governance issues in your work or volunteering (e.g. partners disagreeing on direction, uncertainty about who owns assets, etc) and if so, what lessons would you apply to helping guide the ODK project?

Hi @dicksonsamwel
Thanks for your question.

One way that I am advocating the use of ODK as an efficient means of data collection is by winning contracts to undertake fieldwork. ODK gives us an advantage over paper-based systems as we have no duplication of effort (writing up field notes!), so we reduce our costs accordingly, so giving us a competitive advantage at the moment. So maybe others will take up the challenge :slight_smile:

Perhaps more seriously, I have developed a few projects based around ODK for national organisations and highlighted how these can be adapted for other data collection projects or expanded to different geographical scopes. As an example, I pulled together a team to undertake an audit of mountain paths for a large charity / NGO, using a method that had previously been done with paper based records - I translated the system to ODK and trained a team of path experts to use it. After completing the project I trained a number of the NGOs staff in the data collection process and identified additional 'assets' and situations where ODK could be used to manage data collection more efficiently than their current methods. Time will tell if they take up these ideas...

Usually we can highlight cost savings involved (through reduced time inputs overall) but sometimes improving the quality and quantity of data being collected and effective analysis / management of the results (often all of the above). Quite a good way of advocating the use of ODK...

I think one of the ongoing challenges for ODK is making it as easy as possible for people who are experts in their own field, but with limited experience of electronic recording to set up and submit data. This is also how I've been approaching my contributions to the Forum / development - trying to see things from their perspective and making suggestions that could lessen the learning curve and help them see the benefits.

Others will have bigger networks / wider opportunities, but my way of advocating is about practically demonstrating benefits, improving value for money and saving resources.

Hope this helps explain what I mean by that glib statement.


Hi @LN

In short, many of them!

Usually when partnerships are involved there is a need to understand different perspectives, goals, priorities and available resources. I have found that mapping these out, facilitating discussions and developing a shared vision can help to avoid some pitfalls, enhance relationships and gain trust.

Sometimes this has been done at 'transition points' (for example, one organisation I was leading at the time expanded it's geographical range and we needed to ensure we didn't tread on toes - we drew in additional stakeholders and worked with them, rather than trying to deliver what we thought they needed) other times when significant problems had been encountered (for example a range of stakeholders had conflicting views on the way forward for one project, so we sat them around a table and worked out where the common ground lay, where the blockages were, and what the showstoppers for progress would be for each stakeholder - it was cathartic at times, but helped reset a few relationships - and it is an ongoing process rather than a one-off).

But sometimes it doesn't go smoothly or actually work - there have been occasions where it has been necessary to unpick some tangles and let people leave with dignity (myself included, but maybe not always the dignity bit!).

So I'm guessing that it would be appropriate to try to assist the TAB with these aspects of governance - identifying the issues, how they can be addressed, the likely resources needed and the priorities for resolution.

Maybe there's also a need to acknowledge the difference between governance and management and I'm conscious that this is an advisory board rather than a management team.

Sorry, possibly not the most coherent response, but I'm just away on holiday this week and saw this as I was shutting down my computer so responded, perhaps a little too hastily... ah yes, another familiar governance issue!


Hi @seewhy,

sorry if I'm wrong, but I don't really understand from your application if your work on the field is limited to Scotland (or UK in general) or do you have experience with ODK in resource-constrained environments?
How did you "meet" ODK?

What would you suggest to improving it? Don't you think that the super recent "setting to automatically match the blank forms on the server" would not be enough?

Hi @aurdipas
Thanks for your questions.

You’re not wrong. My experience is focussed on Scotland and more recently in Ireland - the Republic and the North. I have not worked in England since 1991, so things have changed enough for it not to be relevant. Geographically my work experience is reasonably limited although I used to enjoy visiting lots of places, in the days when that was possible!

I would probably take a slightly oblique view of 'resource-constrained environments' to address your question - I suspect you mean developing countries and/or emergency / disaster response situations. However, another way of looking at this would be that we are a 'micro-business' (2 partners, no staff) and we compete with large consultancies that have much greater resources than we do. I am the tech support (selecting the hardware and software platforms), I design surveys to use in the field, sometimes in collaboration with others more familiar with the give topic, I deploy the surveys (sometimes to teams I manage, sometimes to clients), I collect the data for many projects, I download it and I analyse it. And I have to do this with my limited capabilities, not a huge amount of time whilst fighting my natural inclination to avoid external dependencies (just a wee part of which is related to cost!). And as time has passed, and my confidence in ODK and its stability has increased, I have deployed projects involving clients and colleagues that are built around ODK (please read that as both my confidence in ODK's stability, and ODK's actual stability!). These need to be cost effective, use existing equipment where possible and actually solve a problem, rather than just change the nature of it - so generally I would describe them as 'resource constrained environments'

So whilst I accept that this is a 'special' definition of 'resource-constrained environments', I consider it to be highly relevant to the development and management of ODK. You won’t find me pushing for a feature that is dependent on 5G or Android 14 (or whatever version we’re at), or even iOS. We use second-hand ebay specials (Samsung Galaxy Note 4, because of their good battery life and stylus input for use in the rain (in a waterproof case!), running on Android 6); we don’t have our own server (the subscription model of a cloud solution doesn’t work for us doing short-term projects mostly) so we’ve been experimenting with Google Drive and now Kobotoolbox, but for years it was all manual copy of the ODK directory and Briefcase – which I recently ‘exposed’ in this post: Advice on managing Briefcase storage on my hard drive I was defeated when Aggregate moved away (understandably) from Appspot and totally failed to set up on AWS Aggregate 2.01 on AWS so I’ve got plenty of skeleton’s in the closet.

However, I am coming to realise that it may be a useful perspective too – I hadn’t really thought about it in this way before applying to TAB. Others will be much better placed and capable of contributing to code enhancements or have the authority / influence to help ODK gain traction and popularity. I hope I can offer some insight into how the tools are used in the field and how the features can be adapted to different situations. I think I’ve come across enough ‘difficult’ situations where I’ve had to be creative with ODK, or ask for the boundaries to be pushed and a few ‘fences’ fixed. And also there have been a few features or issues where my interests are marginal to those of the overall ODK ecosystem so they still wait for a solution (or me finding another way).

Your second question relates to simplicity / usability for non-tech savvy folk.

I think that this new feature of ‘synchronising’ blank forms with a server is a good one – but it does depend on you accessing a server, as I’ve mentioned above - so not universally relevant... But that also doesn't cover everything, in my opinion. @mathieubossaert and I have been finding some challenges with offline maps - Button to select an offline map file on the phone and move it at the right place. And the new ‘here be dragons’ nature of the ODK directory (thanks to Google) only makes things worse.

As an example, I was on the side of the mountain with a path builder the other week. He’s a highly skilled craftsman but has very little tolerance of technology that is not intuitive. I needed him to load a .mbtiles file on his phone so he could see the survey data for the path he is building when recording a geopoint (related to monitoring progress) – he had failed to download the .mbtiles file before going on site because he doesn’t have a laptop to plug in. He didn’t have a decent file manager app on the phone, and found it difficult to follow my instructions that were given from 2m away (think physical distancing, Covid-19) but that would normally be 120 miles away from my office... So I got the hand gel out, disinfected his phone and then tried to send it with Bluetooth from my phone, but I didn’t find a way of getting Android to recognise the file and move it to the right place on his phone. These are the kind of problems I am working with – they are frustratingly simple at times, but make the difference between success and embarrassment. On another project this week, with a different recording protocol, I managed to talk someone through the process of getting a map layer onto their phone - a mix of email instructions and talking them through it - it was successful, but not easy.

So working within TAB would mean I bring some weird experiences that might have some relevance to other situations, and I'd need to leave my own ‘interests’ at the door to look for the most creative common good / best solution with the resources available – because that’s how I approach life.


Sorry I forgot to answer this...

I mentioned in the TAB application that I've been using mobile data collection for a while - basically when my PocketPCs became effectively obsolete and I finally got an android phone, I was casting around for a replacement for VisualCE (which had been a rare parting of cash for me in about 2007!).

I was searching for open source software as a 'way in' to getting a form-based data collection process in unfamiliar territory. - you know how many apps claim (or have claimed) to be 'The Solution', and how much time can be swallowed up on a learning curve. I had a particular need in mind which is still the baseline for functionality in my work. I was greatly attracted by the fact that ODK was a tool not a solution, and didn't need me to be an Android developer to be able to get on with my 'day job'. One app with a consistent, coherent and weirdly familiar method for designing forms (I chose XLSForms from the outset) and the possibility to get hold of the data without an ongoing fee (Briefcase). It felt like an elegant ecosystem that I could dip into and I could see the potential to help others (colleagues and clients) collect data in different situations without the 'overhead' of bespoke apps or paper-based systems.

In effect ODK became my fishing rod, instead of buying a fish for supper.

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Hi @seewhy!

Thanks for your responses so far! I especially appreciate your answer to @aurdipas's question and the different perspective you bring around low-resource environments!

Something I don't think anyone else has covered: why do you want to be on the TAB?

Thanks for your very pertinent question. Apologies for the delay in responding I've been in the field all day - I tried to respond last night on my phone by replying to the email but it seems to have gone AWOL (so I won't be getting that Forum Badge!).

So I'll try to explain why I decided to apply again, but maybe more succinctly - in 3 words,: Support, Influence, Inspire

I've got a lot out of ODK so it's only reasonable to support it's growth and development - support those with the skills to make the changes and enhancements, and support those who want to use ODK as they are starting on their own journey (sorry if that sounds a bit corny, but hopefully you get what I mean);

I'd like to help influence its development with my 'small guy' hat on. People talk a lot about diversity, and that's good in my book. It's one of the many things where I fail - I've turned into the dreaded 'usual suspects'. So the only way I could add diversity is to 'represent' people who work independently, without the support of big teams or on global / emergency topics.

I hope that I can inspire people to get involved and contribute - it doesn't have to be folk that do this kind of thing for their day job. And hopefully inspire people to use ODK for their work to improve efficiency.

Hope that helps - maybe the other, even less coherent email response will turn up one day too...