Managing Entities in Central#

New in version v2022.3.

Entities are a powerful way to automatically bring the information you collect right back to your devices and Forms in the field.

Without Entities, you can attach existing data during the Form creation process, often through choices sheets or .csv files. Once this data is loaded into the Form, you can use it as the source for selection choices, to prepopulate data fields in the Form, or validate new input. A list of districts, for example, can be used as choices for selection, and information about each district can then be shown to the user or checked against. If you are new to these techniques, you can learn more about them on the Form Datasets page.

This is wonderful if the data you want to use is already known when you are publishing your Form, and if it doesn't change over the course of your project. In many cases, however, the data being collected today for the project is the data you need tomorrow for the same project. Think about seeing a patient for the first and then second time, or registering and then revisiting a survey site for a follow-up. These kinds of workflows are called multiple encounter or longitudinal workflows.

If you have this kind of workflow, you can use the registered data items in a follow-up Form without using Entities, but it requires some work. You can download the Submission data from the registration Form, and then you can attach that data to a follow-up Form, as described above. However, the data available to devices in the field is only as current as your latest follow-up Form update. Some people write programs that automate this process over the API but this requires technical skills that many projects don't have.

Now there is a way to automate this process from within Central itself.

Introducing Entities#

First, some definitions: each item that gets managed by an ODK workflow is called an Entity. Entities can be physical (e.g., a tree) or abstract (e.g., a site visit). Entities of the same type are organized in Entity Lists.


In Central versions prior to v2023.4, Entity Lists were called Datasets.

Next, a new feature. You can now tell Central that some of your incoming Submission data should create Entities in an Entity List created and managed for you by Central. This Entity List can then be attached by that name to your follow-up Forms, exactly like you would manually attach a CSV document. You can attach an Entity List to any number of Forms, even to a registration Form.


Using this functionality, you don't have to create and upload Entity Lists yourself. When Central receives submissions (or they are approved, see the settings section), new Entities are automatically created. As soon as users of the Follow-up Form(s) get Form updates, they can interact with the new Entities.

If you are interested in seeing how Entities can fit into your workflow right away, we recommend following the Quick Start guide below, where you will upload a tree registration Form and a tree follow-up Form we have created already and see how trees are created by one Form and appear in another.

Roadmap and limitations#

Entities are a big new concept that open up a lot of new possibilities. While we think many workflows can benefit from Entities today, they have some limitations that you should be aware of.

What's available now:

  • Create an Entity with a registration form (automatically or after project manager approval)

  • Use multiple different registration forms targeting the same Entity List (e.g., registration at school vs. registration at home)

  • Use Entities in one or more follow-up form

  • Download Entities into Power BI, Excel, Python, and R

Important limitations:

  • Entity create and update requires Internet access

  • Entity delete is only available via API

  • Client performance (ODK Collect or Enketo web forms) suffers when managing more than 10,000 Entities

  • All devices will always download all Entities which may be a privacy concern

  • The Form specification and API may change

We expect all of these limitations to be addressed over time. The roadmap at has what we're working on now and what's coming next.

Quick Start#

We recommend watching the video below once or twice to get an overview of how Entities work in Central. Once you have that context, proceed with the steps below to try it yourself!


In Central versions prior to v2023.4, Entity Lists were called Datasets. The video below was recorded with Central v2022.3 so many small improvements have been made since.

In this Quick Start, you will upload two Forms we have already authored for you: the Tree registration Form and the Tree follow-up Form. You will step through the registration of a new tree and the process of following up on that tree in a later Form.

First, let's prepare the Forms for use with Central.

  1. Create a new Project, if you can. It can be easier to see what's going on without other Forms in the way.

  2. Upload the Tree registration Form. Notice how Central knows from the Form definition that the Form creates Entities in an Entity List, and populates three Entity Properties.

  3. Publish the Form. As the dialog says, this action creates the trees Entity List within the Project you created.

  4. Now, upload the Tree follow-up Form.

  5. Switch over to the Form Attachments tab before you publish this Form, and notice how the Form wants a data file called trees.csv, but that Central has already linked the Entity List trees (created when you published the registration Form in step 3) and you don't need to upload any data here.

  6. Go back to the Draft Status page and publish this Form. Because this Form only consumes trees, it does not make any changes to any Entity Properties.

  7. Now, create an App User within this Project, allow it to access both of these Forms, and load them up into Collect or some other ODK-compatible client.

Next, let's see these Forms working together.

  1. First, fill out and submit the Tree registration Form. Be sure to choose a species and specify a Tree circumference. Use 100 if you are not sure what to fill in.

  2. Go back to Central and click on trees in the Entities tab in your Project.

  3. Click on the Data tab and you should see your new tree! If you don't, you can wait a second or two and refresh.

  4. Now go back to Collect and update your Forms to fetch the new data.

  5. Next, fill out the Tree follow-up Form.

  6. Your tree is here! Choose it.

  7. Report a new circumference that is smaller than the old one. This is probably not a good idea for a tree. See how the Form warns you about this problem, based on the data you'd put into the registration Form.

  8. Correct the circumference to a larger number, and submit the Form.

That's it! The follow-up Form creates normal Submissions, so you can access the data it collects like any Form.

Creating Entity Lists#


If you skipped the Quick Start above, we suggest you go back and give it a try. You will learn hands on with Central a lot of what will be described below.

In these early versions of Entities, you cannot create an Entity List directly through the Central website. To begin using Entities, you will need to author a Form which defines them. By uploading a Form that specifies the fields in a Submission that should be used to create a new Entity, and the name of the Entity List these new Entities should go to, you will prompt Central to create the Entity List. You'll be able to see the Entity information that Central recognized in your Form once you upload it.

When you publish this Form, the new Entity List and new Entity Properties will be created for you automatically within the Project. You can learn more about authoring these kinds of Forms in the sections below.


By default, Entities are created immediately when the server receives the Submission. If you want to require a review step before Entities are available for follow-up, you can configure this in each Entity List's settings.

To see this new Entity List and download data from it, visit the Entities tab on the Project page.

To use data from a Entity List in a Form, you can refer to it in a select_one_from_file question as NAME.csv where NAME is the name of your Entity List. When you upload that Form, you will see on the Form Attachments tab that the file has been automatically linked to the Entity List.

Testing Forms with Entities#

Checking that your Forms are working together the way you expect is challenging with Entities. You can create a Draft of a Form and use it as a safe space to try out Form definitions and see resulting Submissions. But Entity Lists reach across Forms. They live alongside Forms within the Project. How do Form Drafts related to the same Entities connect together?

Drafts currently don't handle this question very well and a future version of Central will provide better answers.

For now, you can only create Entity Lists and Entities from published Forms and Submissions. The creation of Entity Lists or new Entity Properties only occurs at the moment you publish the Form. Only real form Submissions create Entities. This means that you can't test the usage of Entities in follow-up Forms until real Entities have been created.

To try the end-to-end workflow across multiple Forms, we recommend creating a temporary Project just for testing. You can publish all the Forms, create Entities for testing, and make sure that all the Forms work well together.

You can also try a follow-up Form Draft by manually creating a CSV of sample Entities and then attaching it to your Draft, as described in Forms With Attachments. When you have verified the logic of the follow-up Form and are ready to publish it, you can change the link from the CSV to the desired Entity List.

Creating Forms to use Entities#

Central does a lot of work to help you manage Entities, but at least for now the only way to ask it to do so is to create a Form that describes how.

In the following section, we describe how to author Forms that create new Entities, also known as registration Forms. After that, we discuss Forms that use Entities, also known as follow-up Forms.

Build a Form that creates Entities#

You’ll start by building a Form that creates new Entities in an Entity List called trees. When you publish this Form, a trees Entity List will be created for you. When a Submission to this Form is received, an Entity will be created in the trees Entity List from data in the Submission. These types of Forms are often referred to as registration, enrollment, intake or discovery Forms.

Define the structure of the Entity-creating Form#

Start by defining the structure of your Form in XLSForm using the standard Form building blocks. For example, this form is used to register trees:








Tree location

select_one species


Tree species



Tree circumference in cm



Intake notes

Test your Form to make sure it works and collects the data that you need.

Specify the Entity List the Form should save Entities to#

Add a new entities sheet to your XLSForm. This is where you will specify your Entity List name, under list_name.

The Entity List name will be used by Central to uniquely identify that Entity List. If an Entity List with the name you specify already exists in Central, this Form will create Entities in that existing Entity List. If Central doesn't yet have a Entity List with the specified name, it will be created.

Each Entity must have a label to identify it on Central and for use in follow-up Forms. The label field on the entities sheet is where you provide the expression to define the label for each Entity. This is very similar to the instance name specified for a Submission. The label expression can use any field in the Form, including ones that aren't saved to Entity Properties.






concat(${circumference}, "cm ", ${species})

Specify the Form fields that are saved to Entities#

If you think of your Entity List as a spreadsheet, each row represents an individual Entity and each column specifies an Entity Property.

You define Entity Properties by adding a save_to column to your XLSForm. You then put an Entity Property name in the save_to column for each Form field that you would like to save for use in follow-up Forms.









Tree location


select_one species


Tree species




Tree circumference in cm




Intake notes

If you'd like to check your work, you can compare with this example form, with the entities sheet and save_to information.

When you publish this Form on Central, the trees Entity List will be created for you.

Build a Form that uses Entities#

Your trees Entity List can now be attached to any Form using select_one_from_file or csv-external.







select_one_from_file trees.csv


Please select a tree






The circumference was previously measured as ${prior_circumference}cm. Please enter the current circumference in cm.

You can see the full XLSForm here.

The same Entity List can be used in many different Forms. The concepts and patterns described in the data collector workflows and the Form Datasets sections apply to Entity Lists as well.

Managing Entities#

To browse all Entity Lists in a Project, go to the Entities tab within the Project. You will see a list of all Entity Lists that have been created by Forms in this Project. Click on any Entity List to see basic details about it.


On this page, you can see how this Entity List relates to other incoming data in your Project: which Forms contribute to the Entity List, which ones read data from it, and which fields are being read or written. To see the actual data in your Entity List, click on the Data tab at the top.

Managing Entity Data#

You can preview or download Entity data from Central from the Data tab on the Entity List's page.


Similar to the Submissions data page for a Form, you will see overall metadata like the create and update time on the left side of the table, and the actual data values on the right. You can press Refresh to fetch the latest data, or use any of the options at the top right of the table to export the data to a file or an analysis tool.

To see, edit, and manage additional details about a particular Entity, hover over its row in the table and click on More to go to the Entity Detail page. Alternatively, you can click on the pencil icon to edit the Entity data immediately.

Seeing Entity Detail#

The Entity Detail page provides a complete look at the data and history of a particular Entity, and gives tools and options to manage it. You might arrive here by clicking on the Entity name somewhere else, like in an update feed, but you can always find the Entity you want in the Entity Data table and click on the More button.


Similar to the Submission data detail page, the Entity detail page has some basic information about your Entity on the left, and an Activity Feed showing you the history of the Entity on the right.

You can see the actual data stored in the Entity in the bottom left under the Entity Data section, and you can edit that information by clicking on Edit right there.

Editing Entity Data#

To edit the data stored for an Entity, you can locate the Entity in the Entity data table and click on the pencil icon that shows up on top of its row, or you can click on the Edit button if you are already looking at the detail page for the Entity.


A dialog will appear with all the Entity data listed. You will see the name of the field in the first column, the currently saved value for each field in the second column, and an edit field you can use to update the data in the third column.

The very first row labeled Entity Label * is not part of the Form data collected. Rather, it is the title of the Entity, which is computed from the Entity data when the Entity is first created using rules set by the Form author. You can change it to any value here.

As you type, Central will highlight any fields you have changed in yellow so you can see what you've done.

To complete the process press the Update button to save your changes to the Entity. You will see a confirmation that the save succeeded. If you don't like your changes, you can click on the x or the Never mind link to close the dialog.

Changing Entity List Settings#

Right now, only one setting is available for Entity Lists in Central. To reach it, click on the Settings tab on the Entity List page.


Here, you can choose whether Entities are created immediately when they are first received by Central, or if Central should wait until the Submission is approved before creating any Entities from it.

Note that only one of these two behaviors can be chosen at a time. If you change the setting from "on approval" to "when received" but you still have unapproved Submissions, Central will not ever be told to make Entities out of these Submissions. If this is the case for you and you try to make this setting change, you will see a special message and you will have the option to convert all pending (not approved or rejected) Submissions into Entities right away.

Select either option and you should see a confirmation the setting has changed.