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, 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.
The majority of the protocols set up for in-person data collection will need to be revised. Make sure allocate enough time for these updates to be put in place. These changes are as essential as the survey instrument updates. You will have to either change the following protocols, or confirm that they still work in the new context:
Set up of the team
Ensure that the set up of the survey team is such that there are not too many enumerators reporting to 1 supervisor (no more than 5). You should consider adding more supervisors if needed (remember, you’re already saving on budget with no travel to the field!)
If you require to hire enumerators/supervisors, make sure to hire locally and find candidates who have previous enumeration experience.
The survey manuals will have to go through a detailed update to ensure it accounts for all changes put in place. See here an example of survey protocols from Tavneet Suri’s Kenya UBI project.
Additional equipment will ideally have to be procured and made available to the enumerators. This includes, telephone or mobile devices, SIM Cards, money to recharge SIM cards, tablets/computers to enter data on, and internet access for all parts of the process - from training to sharing data.
Communication within the team
Decide with your team about communication flows within the team. This should include details about :
- who is the first point of contact for each person in the team’ (for all enumerators, supervisors, and above)
- how enumerators will be provided with the sample they have to call on a daily basis
- who will ensure enumerators have enough phone credit to call respondents
- what data will the enumerators submit on a daily basis (or a regular previously decided upon frequency)
- how will enumerators share the data collected (submit forms at the end of each day)
- who will monitor enumerator performance (e.g. number of phone calls completed per day)
- how will issues identified in the data quality checks be conveyed to the enumerators
- whom the enumerator should reach out to in case of any questions or if a respondent requests an escalation. It often works well to create a WhatsApp group with all enumerators to stay connected
- Always have a plan B (and C) in place in case the decided upon plan fails for any reason (like connectivity issues)
- Tracking sheets
Tracking sheets become a more crucial component during phone surveys. These should be created as a digital survey form the enumerator fills in as we can not share printed sheets on a daily basis. A tracking sheet should be provided to each enumerator to be able to track
Respondent details Updated contact numbers Status of survey Call back time in case respondent was unavailable Number of attempts Time of each attempt
Someone other than the respondent answers. Create a protocol which directs the enumerator on this front. The enumerator can try to get other contact numbers the respondent can be reached on, take an appointment at a time the respondent will be available, if the enumerator can survey another member if the respondent is still not available, or to replace the respondent.
Very often respondents are not available to speak when an enumerator calls. A protocol can be put in place to allow respondents to provide times they are available to talk at and to ensure that the enumerator calls the respondent at the time of the appointment.
- Replacement of respondent.
Put in place a protocol for how many attempts an enumerator should make to reach a respondent before the respondent is replaced. It is also essential to think about how far apart these attempts should be from one another to be able to catch the respondent at a time they are free to speak. Example of a good protocol is 9 attempts with maximum of 3 attempts per day and each attempt spread at least 3 hours apart.
Data quality checks
The data quality checks that will be run, the frequency of running the same, and how the results will be communicated to the teams should be decided on before any data collection starts.
Ensuring data security
A data security protocol should be put in place to try and ensure no data is lost. 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) in an effort to ensure the respondent contact numbers do not get used for any other purposes.
(Re)Train the enumerators
The survey team will have to be extensively trained on the protocols, the survey instrument, and ways to keep the team engaged. This is one of the most challenging tasks as there is no way to get the entire survey team together and conduct an in-person training. The training has to be done virtually, and you will need to be innovative with multiple alternative plans for training the enumerators. Here are some guidelines to keep in mind when designing the training.
- Have smaller groups of enumerators for the training.
If there are many enumerators break them down into smaller manageable groups (typically 5) to make it easier to conduct the training.
- Use a calling platform like Skype, Zoom, Webex.
Depending on bandwidth, try to conduct the training using video to provide some sense of personal connection. If a live virtual training is not possible, consider alternatives such as recorded videos and phone calls.
You can record the training and share with enumerators for future use or in case they missed parts of the training due to connectivity issues. Also, be sure to allocate more time in the training schedule for these additional steps, or in case things go wrong.
- Provide the team with a detailed training manual (example here). You should have a detailed script for the entire survey instrument(s) so the enumerators know how to ask the questions.
- Create recordings of test interviews. You can then use these for the training.
- Conduct more mock interviews during virtual training than you would in an in-person training
- Include content on how to probe respondents on each question
- Train the enumerators to answer potential questions the respondents might ask. These can be questions about the project, the design, the purpose of the interview, on each question, or anything else.
- Include suggestions on how to keep respondents engaged during the interview. Some examples include
Building on established rapport between enumerator and respondent Compensating respondents via mobile money or airtime if feasible Including the expected survey duration in the consent form. Attempting to answer each question of the respondent as comprehensively as possible Being inquisitive and kind with the respondent Offering to escalate to the manager in case of any issue