Broadly speaking, there are two methods of collecting data - remote surveys and field surveys. Remote surveys are very useful to collect primary data in areas that are either not accessible (such as areas affected by conflict). Such areas are ones in dire need of data to better inform policy response and remote surveys can help collect this data to solve common development challenges such as lack of access to water, electricity or healthcare.
- Primary data collection is the process of gathering data through surveys, interviews, or experiments.
- Dime Analytics Guidelines on preparing for data collection
- Remote surveys are also a cost-effective method of performing a follow-up after an initial in-person interview.
- Remote surveys can be of different types, depending on the medium over which they are conducted: phone surveys, web surveys, and recorded surveys.
Phone Surveys (CATI)
In phone surveys or computer-assisted telephone interviews (CATI), the enumerator calls the respondent and asks them the questions over telephone. The enumerator enters these responses onto a programmed digital survey, which is then shared electronically with the research team. Phone surveys have 2 major advantages. Firstly, they allow data to be collected remotely, thus saving resources since collecting data through face-to-face interviews can often be expensive. Secondly, they are a great option for collecting data in emergencies or in conflict areas while still retaining the personal touch that researchers prefer.
However, when a research team decides to use a phone survey for collecting data, they must keep in mind concerns about:
- Feasibility. Whether or not a phone survey can be carried out.
- Preparation. Steps involved in preparing for remote data collection.
- Communication and Data Quality. During the process of remote data collection.
The research team must keep in mind that in a lot of cases, data collection through phone surveys will not be feasible. In that case, they will have to rely on field data collection, or suspend the process entirely if in-person data collection is not possible. The research team can consider the following aspects of a survey to decide whether conducting a phone survey is feasible:
This involves considering whether it practical to ask these questions over a telephone. This is an important consideration because asking questions over the phone may drastically alter the nature of data that is collected. It can also affect the manner in which respondents interpret questions in the survey and affect response rates. Examples of questions which cannot be asked over the phone include questions on sensitive topics (such as gender-based violence), and questions with test components (such as a math test for a school-based survey).
- Length of the survey.
General guidelines and best practices suggest that phone interviews should be short. Prior studies suggest that phone survey that are longer than 20 minutes result in lower response rates. If the original questionnaire (for a field survey) takes longer than 20 minutes to answer (on average), the research team might need to reduce the length of your questionnaire or reduce the number of questions. In cases where it is not possible to reduce the duration of the survey without affecting the outcomes of interest, the research team may consider the feasibility of conducting the survey over multiple phone calls.
- Access to telephones.
This is important because if the target population does not have access to telephones , the survey will introduce a selection bias into the sample. Further, it will lead to lower response rates and reduce the cost-effectiveness of the survey.
- Availability of contact information.
In the case of a follow-up survey (that is, if a prior round of surveys has already been conducted), it is likely that the research team has already collected contact information about the respondents. But in the case of a baseline survey (that is, when it is the first round of survey), if the research team does not have access to the contact numbers, they can consider random digit sampling (RDS). This is a method for selecting people for involvement in telephone statistical surveys by generating or selecting telephone numbers at random.
If the context of the study matches these requirements , then the research team can start preparing for remote data collection.
The process of preparing for phone surveys involves some additional steps compared to the process of preparing for field surveys. At each stage of this process, everyone involved in the data collection (government agencies, survey firm, enumerators) must communicate clearly to ensure that data collection goes ahead smoothly.
- Timeline for a phone survey.
The research team must keep in mind that each step leading up to, and including, the data collection will take additional time in the case of a phone survey. Therefore they must account for this, and allocate more time for each step, for instance, keeping 3 weeks for a pre-pilot for a phone survey, instead of just 1-2 weeks for a field survey.
- IRB approvals for a phone survey.
For a phone survey, the research team must obtain IRB approvals for additional aspects like oral consent, audio audits, and incentives for respondents.
- Procurement-related documents.
Procuring a survey firm involves drafting 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. An example of additional costs in the case of phone surveys can be the cost of setting up a call-center for interviewers.
- Questionnaire for a phone survey.
There are some differences in the considerations for designing a field survey, and designing a phone survey. These involve managing the length of a phone survey, including additional requirements for verbal consent, and adding audio audits.
- Remote data collection protocols.
Similarly, the protocols for phone surveys are different from protocols for field surveys. Some of these differences are in terms of the team setup, communication protocols and data-quality checks.
- Enumerator training.
The process of training enumerators becomes even more challenging in the case of a work-from-home phone survey. For instance, when a pandemic like COVID-19 prevents the research team from training enumerators in-person, the research team must establish certain logistical and content-based changes to the training method. These changes include sharing recorded training sessions, preparing enumerators for follow-up questions from respondents, and discussing steps to keep respondents engaged.
Note: These steps will also be useful in case the the research team has to transition from an in-person survey to a phone survey, for instance, during a pandemic or natural disaster.
Communication during data collection
Since there are so many aspects involved in the process of data collection, it is important to make sure that all members of the research team communicate frequently and effectively. Communication becomes even more important when data collection is being carried out remotely. Some guidelines to keep in mind are:
- Set up strong monitoring and communication protocols before starting data collection. Test them during training and the pilot, to identify any gaps that might arise.
- Set up a clear chain of command, and make sure each enumerator knows who their first point of contact (POC) is on the research team.
- Schedule regular calls to check-in with each enumerator, and to resolve any concerns they may have.
- Conduct team meetings at least once a week.
- Consider using a team-collaboration and communication tool to maintain a 24X7 channel for communication with supervisors in the survey team. You may add enumerators too if the survey team is small.
- Monitor data carefully, and on a daily basis. Provide regular feedback to enumerators on the quality of data being collected.
Data quality assurance
When dealing with phone surveys, the research team must run data quality checks more extensively. Since phone surveys have an inherent degree of self selection, it is essential to keep track of outcomes of interest. This is because self selection can result in samples which are not entirely representative. Therefore, in addition to the guidelines for monitoring field data quality, there are some steps that the research team must follow to monitor the quality of phone data in the context of phone surveys:
- Track progress and completion rate of surveys more closely.
- Since the survey is short, include consistency checks on all questions if possible.
- Include more stringent reviews on enumerator performance, and share this feedback with enumerators regularly.
- Insert audio audits at predefined or random points of the survey. Then ask the supervisors to review the audio audits on a daily basis and cross-check the responses with the submitted forms. One way to do this is to create an audio audits form for the supervisor to fill in while reviewing audio audits.
- If conference calls are feasible, the supervisor can shadow the enumerator a few times to ensure that the enumerator is following all guidelines.
- Ask the supervisor to call a few respondents at random to confirm that the enumerator actually called them
- Back checks can be run on certain questions as well.
- Carefully track data quality throughout the process of data collection. This is a departure from in-person data collection where the emphasis on data quality checks is higher during the initial days of data collection.
Other Remote Surveys
Besides phone surveys, there are other alternatives for remote data collection as well. These include web surveys and recorded surveys.
In a web survey, the research team directly shares a link to a programmed survey is shared with respondents via text or email, without relying on an enumerator. The respondent then answers the questions in the survey by accessing the link to the survey, either on a phone or a laptop. Therefore, in the case of web surveys, it is essential that respondents have access to internet and that they can read and understand a written questionnaire.
Web-surveys are useful because they reduce survey costs considerably as there are no enumerators involved. They can also be programmed easily using open data kit (ODK)-based tools, without the need for a lot of modification in the drafting process. However, they too suffer from the problem lower response rates which arise due to self-selection.
In a recorded survey, survey instruments are pre-recorded in either written or oral form. Examples of recorded surveys include IVR, SMS/Text surveys, and surveys shared via social media and email. These surveys work well when the survey is very short (4-5 questions and/or less than 5 minutes on average), has zero or minimal skip patterns, and the questions are very straightforward to understand.
The downside of a recorded survey is that there is a lack of human connect and the respondent cannot ask for more clarity on a question. This can lead to lower response rates compared to phone surveys as well as in-person interviews. They can also result in data that is potentially noisy, that is, the answers either vary a lot or are vague because respondents could not interpret questions accurately.
- Andrew et. al. (World Bank Group), General guide on conducting phone surveys
- Özler and Cuevas (World Bank), Blog post on reducing attrition in phone surveys
- Goldstein and Kondylis (World Bank), Blog post on impact Evaluations in the time of Covid-19
- Markus Goldstein (World Bank), Blog post on using phones for repeat surveys
- Herath et al. (J-PAL Africa), Blog post on increasing response rates in surveys
- J-PAL, Best practices for conducting phone surveys
- J-PAL, Protocols for phone surveys
- J-PAL South Asia, Checklists and resources for transitioning to CATI
- IPA, Guide on conducting phone surveys during a pandemic
- Tavneet Suri, Webinar on adaptations for phone surveys