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Why Remote Data Collection is not an Answer?

Updated: Aug 28, 2020

Ani Kvintradze's reflection on 5 months of COVID-19 data collection, in the Humanitarian Environment

In March 2020, I posted a question on Facebook, asking my friends and colleagues to share their experience with remote data collection methods. Back then, many countries were already on partial or full lock-down, in order to prevent the spread of virus. Of course, international Humanitarian and Development programmes were not an exception, hence I was trying to think of data collection methods in such an environment. Suggestions from my Facebook friends mostly included phone interviews, online surveys, online Focus Group Discussions (FGDs) through Zoom or other similar platforms. In today’s digitalized world, the answer on the question is easy for those in the developed world, including Georgia. However, this remote modality is not as straightforward in humanitarian settings, or in cases when our target population constitutes of vulnerable groups. In this post, I will speak of the top 5 considerations that I found useful in this process of moving to remote data collection.

1. Vulnerable communities have less accessibility to Internet and mobile phone – There are certain groups within society that have less access to, and understanding of technology. The starting point for moving data collection into remote work meant to enquire the extent to which people have this accessibility, i.e. the mobile and internet penetration rates. This statistic is usually available on country level, but less so on governorate or community level. In order to have up to date information, it is recommended to do initial key informant interviews (which can be done over the phone), with community leaders, and understand the level of mobile and Internet usage within that community specifically. This means, that before commencing the fieldwork, the initial set of data collection is planned, to understand the local community characteristics. Based on this initial information, you would decide on your primary research method, for example, phone interviews.

It is also recommended to brainstorm on which groups will have even less accessibility to that method within the community, for example: will women have the same accessibility as men? Will people with disabilities be able to be included in your research based on the method you choose? Will the employed individuals be likely to participate in your research if you decide to do phone interviews during the working hours? Asking these types of questions on different groups of community members will help you distill your methods and will push the team to think which mixed methods to use, rather than rely on one-off methodology, such as phone interviews only. Once you identify the groups less likely to have access to the main primary method you have chosen, put mindful steps in including the voices of everyone else you have missed through alternative methodologies.

2. Trust towards phone interviews – What this global pandemic has highlighted, is how disinformation and rumors can spread as quickly as the virus itself. As a result, many people started to distrust their respective governments, and International organizations (such as World Health Organisation (WHO) for example). This means that the non-response rate, which is already high in phone interviews, can be even more acute, due to other underlying reasons. Hence, one of the recommendations is to maintain regular tracking of non-response trends, which will in turn help you to create communication messages for your research.

3. Capacity building for enumerators – Unlike research companies, humanitarian and development organizations rely on a limited number of enumerators, which are pre-trained before the data collection starts. Additional training for staff may be required in times such as this pandemic, to assist an enumerator to a) build rapport with beneficiaries over phone, b) to be capable of providing short and succinct answers to questions, and c) to have a basic knowledge of Psychological First Aid, in order to be able to deal with the increased level of anxiety being experienced globally.

4. Conducting qualitative, in depth interviews is almost impossible - we often rely on in-depth interviews as the source for sensitive information, beliefs, and stigmas. However, this is almost impossible with remote methods. In theory, conducting a qualitative interview over the telephone or via Zoom, is technically possible, however, it can be difficult to discuss sensitive issues with a person if they do not know you before the interview, as many would be unwilling to open up to a stranger over phone. On the contrary, conducting qualitative open-ended or semi-structured (Key Informant) Interviews with stakeholders, community leaders, or representatives of the general public, with the objective of gaining factual or non-sensitive information, is far easier to manage and generally more productive, than face to face meetings.

5. Conducting FGDs or any group discussion based methodology is challenging – two types of group facilitated methods can be used remotely: synchronous and asynchronous group discussions. Synchronous FGD focuses on participation in real time (for example Zoom FGD), while asynchronous caters to online facilitated groups, such as Facebook Groups and Forums. There are advantages and disadvantages for both, however, the risk of personal privacy is high in both and needs to be managed before the start of data collection. Additionally, there are only few available scenarios or target groups where this method can be relevant and feasible.

There are numerous other ethical, and method-related considerations, linked to remote data collection, however these were the top 5 considerations that I found most useful to reflect on.

Author: Ani Kvintradze, Regional MEAL Advisor at Save the Children International
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