Preparing for Remote Data Collection
Preparing for remote data collection involves preparing clear protocols and guidelines for each component of collecting data remotely (that is, from a location that is different from that of the respondent). The main components of remote data collection include timelines, approvals, instrument design, coding surveys, and enumerator training. Each of these components involves additional steps compared to preparing for field data collection. Therefore it is important to establish clear channels for regular communication among everyone involved in the data collection- the research team, government agencies, survey firm, and enumerators.
- Remote surveys are useful for collecting data in cases where field surveys are either too expensive, or not possible due to lack of in-person access to respondents.
- There are 3 broad kinds of remote surveys - phone surveys, web surveys, and recorded surveys.
- Researchers consider phone surveys more efficient because they retain some degree of human interaction.
- We will therefore look at the steps involved in preparing for phone surveys.
- Most guidelines for this process can also be extended to cover other kinds of remote surveys.
- DIME Analytics has also compiled a guide on transitioning to phone surveys when field data collection is not possible due to pandemics or natural disasters.
Preparing the timeline for a survey involves allocating sufficient time for each stage of the survey process - design, pilot, programming, and enumerator training. All of these steps require additional time, since there are additional protocols that need to be followed at each stage. The research team must account for this time, and allocate a reasonable window for each step. For instance, pre-piloting a phone survey might require 3 weeks, instead of 1-2 weeks for a field survey.
In addition to the components of a field study, the research team must also seek IRB approval for additional components of a phone survey.
- Oral consent. The study must make provisions for obtaining oral consent from the respondent at the beginning of the phone interview.
- Audio audits. Audio audits help to monitor and enrich the quality of data collected through a phone survey. The research team must clearly lay out the details of the process, and inform respondents that the interview is being recorded to improve data quality.
- Instrument design. This involves seeking approvals for the content of the questionnaire, as well as aspects like the average duration of the survey.
- Norms for handling PII. Switching to phone surveys will require hiring additional people and strengthening the norms to handle personally identifiable information (PII).
- Incentives to respondents. The research team must set up a different system for giving incentives to respondents in a phone survey.
Note: The research must make changes to these components and seek IRB approval for all of these changes even while transitioning from an in-person survey to a phone survey.
Procuring a survey firm involves drafting a terms of reference (TOR), and preparing a budget for each component of the survey process. These procurement-related documents should also reflect the fact that the data collection will be conducted over the phone, and not in-person.
- Survey firm TOR. The terms of reference (TOR) to hire a survey firm must clearly specify the guidelines for conducting phone surveys. These guidelines should cover issues like the mode of data collection, average survey duration, survey timeline, and so on.
- Survey budget/proposal. The survey firm that is hired to conduct the phone survey should submit a budget that allocates funds to cover equipment costs, incentives, and other administrative costs . An example of costs that may arise in the case of phone surveys is the cost of setting up a call center for enumerators. Note that this cost will not exist if enumerators are working from home, for instance, during a pandemic.
In case of a transition from an in-person survey to a phone survey, the survey firm may need more financial resources. The research team will then have to change the contract to reflect this, and ask for fresh approval from the organization funding the study. In case the World Bank is funding the study, the research team will have to obtain approval from Corporate Procurement.
For a phone survey, keep the following in mind while preparing the instrument (questionnaire):
- Keep the survey short. General guidelines and best practices suggest that the average duration of phone interviews should not be longer than 20 minutes. However, reducing the length of a survey takes considerable amount of time. Make sure to account for this in the timeline update. You can try the following to reduce survey length:
- Drop modules which cannot be asked over phone. For example, GPS coordinates
- Identify the most essential outcomes of interest. Keep questions related to these outcomes
- Ask about aggregates instead of individual items. For example, there might be 25 different categories in survey that aims to assess consumption patterns . These can be combined to just a few categories for the purpose of a phone survey like durable items, non-durable, and food items. However, in such cases it is important to define what items fall under which category, and share this information with the respondent.
- Break the survey into 2 or 3 shorter surveys. It is acceptable to do so if other methods of reducing survey length do not work. However, the research team should remember to account for differential attrition which arises when some respondents complete only a few rounds of the survey.
- Add identifiers at the start of the survey. This helps to ensure that the enumerator is interviewing the intended respondent.
- Collect as many telephone numbers as possible. This is particularly helpful in case there is a need for a follow-up survey.
- Keep the questions as concise and clear as possible. Add hints and definitions throughout.
- Code and repeatedly test the updated survey.
Collecting data using surveys involves clear protocols and considerations that all participants in the survey process must keep in mind. In addition to the protocols for field surveys, the guidelines for phone surveys will need to address the following concerns:
Team setup and hiring
One of the most important steps in the data collection process is hiring, and laying out the team structure. The following are the protocols for these components are:
- Hiring. The research team should hire enumerators and supervisors who have prior experience with data collection.
- Team setup. Ensure that the set up of the survey team is such that there are no more than 5 enumerators reporting to 1 supervisor. The research team may consider hiring more supervisors if needed.
The research team will have to procure additional equipment and make it available to the enumerators. This will include providing telephone or mobile devices, SIM cards (and money to recharge SIM cards), tablets or computers to enter data, and internet access for each part of the process.
Clear communication protocols are important to ensure that the phone survey goes on smoothly. These protocols should cover the following aspects :
- First point of contact. Make sure enumerators and supervisors know who is their first point of contact on the team.
- Contact details of respondents. Make one or two people responsible for providing these details to enumerators everyday.
- Phone credit for enumerators. Ensure that enumerators have the funds to call respondents in the sample.
- Sharing collected data. Specify the frequency for sharing data - daily, alternate days, or weekly. Also specify exactly what data the enumerators need to share.
- Method of sharing data. Specify how enumerators share the data they collect.
- Monitoring enumerators. Specify the people who will monitor enumerator performance, and parameters to judge performance. For example, number of phone calls completed per day.
- Enumerator feedback. Specify how to convey issues identified during data quality checks to the enumerators.
- Escalating issues. Specify whom the enumerator should contact if a respondent requests an escalation or requests clarity on a question. For example, it helps to communicate with enumerators using instant messaging (IM) platforms.
- Backup. Always have a plan B (and C) in place in case of problems like connectivity issues.
Sometimes it is possible that the respondent is either not available, or someone other than the respondent answers. It is important to provide clear protocols for these situations. In cases where some respondents are not available, tracking sheets become very important. These are digital survey forms that the enumerator can fill. A tracking sheet can be used to track:
- Respondent details. Names and contact numbers of all respondents in the sample.
- Status of survey. Whether the respondent answered or not.
- Call back time. In case the respondent was unavailable earlier.
- Number of attempts. If the respondent did not call back.
- Time of each attempt. To calculate average to contact all respondents in the sample.
In cases where someone other than the respondent answers the phone, the enumerator can do the following:
- Take an appointment. The enumerator can ask the person answering the call to specify when the respondents will be available to talk. The enumerator can then calls the same number again at the specified time.
- Replace respondent. Specify the number of attempts an enumerator should make to reach a respondent before replacing the respondent. Also, specify how long enumerators should wait before making another attempt. A good example of such a protocol specifies making 9 attempts in total, with maximum of 3 attempts per day and at least 3 hours between each attempt.
Data quality and security
Monitoring data quality is one of the most important parts of data collection. Poor quality data can at best reduce the effectiveness of a policy intervention, and at worst require a repeat of the entire data collection process. Therefore the research team must prepare clear guidelines for the following:
- Type of data checks. Conduct regular back checks and high frequency checks.
- Frequency of data checks. Specify how often the supervisor should conduct data checks.
- Feedback method. Specify method for communicating feedback to the enumerators after a data check. Decide on this before any data collection starts.
It is equally important to specify clear protocols for data security to ensure no data is lost and no sensitive information is made public. This includes encrypting the survey form and providing guidelines to enumerators about how to share data. Create a confidentiality agreement that each enumerator signs (digitally) to ensure that contact numbers of respondents do not get used for any other purposes.
Note: These guidelines also apply in case there is a need to transition from an in-person survey to a remote survey. Make sure the survey manuals incorporate all these protocols, and share them with all members of the team.
Given the extremely detailed protocols that need to be in place, it is also important to train enumerators extensively regarding protocols, questionnaire content, and ways to keep respondents engaged.
In cases where it is not possible to train enumerators in person, such as in the case of a pandemic, this process becomes even more challenging. In such a case, enumerator training is conducted online (or virtually). With regards to the logistics of this process, keep in mind the following:
- Size of groups. If there are many enumerators break them down into smaller manageable groups (typically 5) to make it easier to conduct the training.
- Platform. Use a calling platform like Skype, Zoom or Webex. Depending on bandwidth, use the video feature where possible to provide some sense of personal connection. If a live virtual training (using an online platform) is not possible, consider alternatives such as recorded videos and phone calls.
- Connectivity issues. You can record the training and share with enumerators in case they miss out on parts of the training due to connectivity issues. The recorded versions can also help enumerators practice all steps until they are confident.
- Training schedule. Allocate more time in the training schedule for these additional steps and the possibility of connection issues.
Similarly, for the content of the training, follow these guidelines:
- Training manual. Provide the team with a detailed training manual.
- Script. Provide enumerators with a detailed script for the entire survey instrument(s) so that they know how to ask the questions.
- Mock interviews. Create recordings of test interviews to use them for the training. Note that it is important to conduct more mock interviews during virtual training than you would in an in-person training
- Asking questions. Include content on how to ask questions during the interview.
- Doubts of respondents. Train the enumerators to clarify any doubts that respondents might have. These doubts can be regarding the project, the design, the purpose of the interview, or about a particular question.
- Engaging respondents. Train enumerators on how to keep respondents engaged during the interview. Some ways to do this include making the respondents feel comfortable, compensating them for their time, clarifying their doubts (if any), offering to get them in touch with the manager if they have any concerns, among others.
- DIME Analytics (World Bank), Guide on work-from-home (WFH) data collection
- J-PAL, Best practices for conducting phone surveys
- J-PAL, Protocols for phone surveys
- J-PAL South Asia, Example of a training manual for phone surveys
- J-PAL South Asia, Checklists and resources for transitioning to CATI
- Özler and Cuevas (World Bank), Blog post on reducing attrition in phone surveys