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Handheld computers for self-administered sensitive data collection: A comparative study in Peru

Antonio Bernabe-Ortiz1*, Walter H Curioso12, Marco A Gonzales1, Wilfredo Evangelista3, Jesus M Castagnetto3, Cesar P Carcamo13, James P Hughes4, Patricia J Garcia13, Geoffrey P Garnett4 and King K Holmes5

Author Affiliations

1 School of Public Health and Administration, Universidad Peruana Cayetano Heredia, Lima, Peru

2 Division of Biomedical and Health Informatics. School of Medicine, University of Washington, Seattle, USA

3 School of Science. Universidad Peruana Cayetano Heredia, Lima, Peru

4 Department of Infectious Disease Epidemiology, Imperial College London, London W21PG, UK

5 Departments of Epidemiology and Medicine and Center for AIDS and STD, University of Washington, Seattle, USA

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BMC Medical Informatics and Decision Making 2008, 8:11  doi:10.1186/1472-6947-8-11

Published: 19 March 2008



Low-cost handheld computers (PDA) potentially represent an efficient tool for collecting sensitive data in surveys. The goal of this study is to evaluate the quality of sexual behavior data collected with handheld computers in comparison with paper-based questionnaires.


A PDA-based program for data collection was developed using Open-Source tools. In two cross-sectional studies, we compared data concerning sexual behavior collected with paper forms to data collected with PDA-based forms in Ancon (Lima).


The first study enrolled 200 participants (18–29 years). General agreement between data collected with paper format and handheld computers was 86%. Categorical variables agreement was between 70.5% and 98.5% (Kappa: 0.43–0.86) while numeric variables agreement was between 57.1% and 79.8% (Spearman: 0.76–0.95). Agreement and correlation were higher in those who had completed at least high school than those with less education. The second study enrolled 198 participants. Rates of responses to sensitive questions were similar between both kinds of questionnaires. However, the number of inconsistencies (p = 0.0001) and missing values (p = 0.001) were significantly higher in paper questionnaires.


This study showed the value of the use of handheld computers for collecting sensitive data, since a high level of agreement between paper and PDA responses was reached. In addition, a lower number of inconsistencies and missing values were found with the PDA-based system. This study has demonstrated that it is feasible to develop a low-cost application for handheld computers, and that PDAs are feasible alternatives for collecting field data in a developing country.