SurveyCTO Programming Work Flow

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While it is possible to code a SurveyCTO questionnaire in many different ways, the time it will take and the quality of the final product depends on how the work is planned. This article outlines an approach common among experienced SurveyCTO Programmers at DIME.

Read First

  • Do not start from the beginning of the survey; instead, work your way through one, question at a time. The former approach takes longer and usually results in less well structured questionnaires that are much more error prone.

Paper First

All surveys should start with creating a paper questionnaire. When there is no time to create and pilot the paper version of the questionnaire, it should still be created in Word or Excel before starting to code the survey in SurveyCTO. Skipping this step almost always leads to issues with data quality.

Creating a paper questionnaire before starting to code allows the project team to focus on what questions to ask and how to ask them. The questionnaire coding can be implemented in any format, display, and functionality decided on in the paper questionnaire. By focusing on content first and programming afterwards, data quality is a higher priority than if the questionnaire is set up in a way which is technically convenient to program. If the SurveyCTO code is implemented before or in parallel to developing the content, then the code always takes focus away from the questionnaire and negatively impacts the way a question is asked and answered.

Pseudo Code

When programmers are not exactly sure how all the details of a coding project will come together, they write pseudo code, a plain language description of what their code is supposed to accomplish. It is very rare that anyone starting to code a SurveyCTO questionnaire knows how all modules will be coded, so writing pseudo code is the best place to start.

Starting to write pseudo code is simple. Start by describing at a high level what the code will do (often in bullet points) in plain English. After all functions of the code have been described at a high level, more details are added. As details are added, the language also changes from plain English to something that resembles code more and more. Computer scientists very often write pseudo code with pen and paper or on a white board.

The next subsection gives a quick introduction on how to write pseudo code in relation to a SurveyCTO questionnaire.

Listing the modules

The highest level a questionnaire can be described on are the modules. Therefore, start your questionnaire by writing a list of them in the order that you want the modules to be asked:

1. Pseudo Code
  • Employment
  • Household Roster
  • Savings
  • Access to Maternal Health

Adding groups and repeat groups

The second highest level of detail is adding all the groups of questions (groups) and groups of repeated questions (repeat groups) that will control the flow of the questionnaire. Some groups are used only to change the appearance of questions, and those groups do not need to be listed here. The groups that should be mentioned in pseudocode are the ones that are relevant when a condition or skip pattern is met. Take a look at the examples of the groups "Savings" and "Access to Maternal Health" below for a reference to groups that use skip patterns.

When you add a repeat group or a group that uses a skip pattern, also add what will determine the number of repeats or what will cause the group to be skipped. We are still writing pseudo code so it is perfectly fine to write in plain English, although some code is also good.

2.1 Pseudo Code
  • Employment
    • Repeat. One repeat for each household member over the age of 15
  • Household Roster
    • Repeat. Ask how many people are in the household then repeat over that number to ask about name, age, etc.
  • Savings
    • Group with skip pattern. Ask if the household has savings. If so, ask savings questions
  • Access to Maternal Health
    • Group with skip pattern. If there is at least one female between the age of 16 and 45 in the household, then ask this module to the household head.

If you look at the pseudo code above, you will see that the number of times the "Employment" module is repeated depends on a variable that is asked in the "Household Roster" module. This is the purpose of writing pseudo code. We want to catch as early as possible anything that will cause a problem while we are still working on a high level, before spending additional time working on details. If we first spend a week working out the details of every module and figure out later that we need to change the structure of the questionnaire, then there is a risk that we have to re-do our work.

The final pseudo code for these modules should contain the correct order:

2.2 Pseudo Code
  • Household Roster
    • Repeat. Ask how many people are in the household and then repeat over that number to ask about name, age, etc.
  • Employment
    • Repeat. One repeat for each household member over the age of 15
  • Savings
    • Group with skip pattern. Ask if the household has savings. If so, ask savings questions
  • Access to Maternal Health
    • Group with skip pattern. If there is at least one female between the age of 16 and 45 in the household, then ask this module to the household head.

Adding more specific references

From here on, it is an iterative process of adding a few details at a time. Focus on adding repeat groups, groups with skip patterns and any variables that they reference. You should also add references such as being able to include labels from previous modules. For example, in the pseudo code below we most likely want to be able to reference the names listed in the "Household Roster" in the "Employment" section. We might also want to be able to have all women aged 16-45 listed as answer options in any question in the "Access to Maternity Health Care" section. Repeat this step and add a bit more detail in each repetition, and each time make sure that the structure still does what you intend to do.

3. Pseudo Code
  • Household Roster
    • hh_num_members: Ask how many people in the household
    • Repeat over hh_num_members
      • hhm_name: ask about household members name
      • hhm_age: ask about household members age
      • hhm_sex: ask about household members gender
  • Employment
    • Repeat over hh_num_members
      • Inside repeat, have a group restricted to (hhm_age > 15)
        • inside group, ask about employment
  • Savings
    • savings: Do you have any savings?
    • Group. skip if savings = no
      • savings questions
  • Access to Maternal Health
    • Have a calculate that is yes if any household member is (hhm = female and hhm_age > 15 and hhm_age < 45)
    • Group. Skip this group if the calculated variable above is not yes

When is Pseudo Code Complete?

There is no clear rule for when pseudo code is completed, but the more experienced a coder is, the more detail is included in their pseudo code. For a beginner, it might be difficult to predict what added detail will require an update to the structure. It is possible to take a break in pseudo coding and code up the structure that you have in the pseudo code already. Do some experimentation to test logic that you are unsure of, and then return to your pseudo code.

The point of pseudo code is to get an idea of the details that are needed for the flow of the questionnaire. When you have your structure (sometimes called "questionnaire skeleton") then you can move on to implementing your pseudo code in actual SurveyCTO code.

The more time you spend on pseudo coding, the easier the actual coding will be. Spend at least a few days on this. Write your first pseudo code and then sleep on it and review it with fresh eyes the next day. Even better, when you have a final draft, discuss your pseudo code with someone else working on the project. Asking someone to proofread your pseudo code is just as useful as asking someone to proofread your text documents.

Start programming

If you have created a paper survey and written your pseudo code, then you have reduced the risk of running into time consuming issues while programming as much as possible, and can begin coding. However, there are often unexpected issues that even the most experienced coders run into. In those cases, it might be helpful to go back to the paper survey or the pseudo code and see if you can come up with a solution that way.

There are two ways to program in SurveyCTO. Most programmers who start by writing pseudo code usually find it easiest to implement it using the Excel method. Since we strongly recommend that everyone conducting large household surveys use the Excel method, we will assume that through the rest of this article.

Template Forms

When you start coding, never start with an empty excel sheet. SurveyCTO provides form templates that have the basic settings already in place which is what most programmers usually start with. Other forms are also used, but more so as inspiration or code examples that are copied and pasted into your questionnaire.

To create a new form using a form template, log in to your server and go to the design tab. Then click start new right at the top of the section Your Forms. After giving the form a name and an id, you can select which form template that you want to use. If this is a form for which you eventually will collect real data on, remember to encrypt it.

What to program first?

When you program in SurveyCTO, do not start with the first question and program your way to the last question. You always want to code from a high level down to the details. This is what you have prepared for in your pseudo code, but even if you don't have psuedo code, this is still the best approach.

Start by creating the repeat groups and skip groups that you have listed in your pseudo code. Then create the variables that the repeat counts and skip patterns depend on. Make sure that there is at least one variable in each repeat group and skip group. After that is completed, upload your survey and test your code thoroughly for the first time. Even if you have spent a lot of time on your pseudo code, you still want to test that all your assumed programming logic works as intended before you spend time working on details.

Filling in the details

After you have tested your structure, you can start to fill in the details module by module. Start with the module that includes the most complex task you want to execute, but if that module depends on any other module, then you must code the "parent module" first. In each module, keep approaching your code in the same way as before, i.e. from a high level to the details.

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This article is a part of the topic Questionnaire Programming.

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