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Data collection during COVID19 is possible! 7 ways to carry out your surveys and monitoring remotely

Updated: Dec 1, 2020


Monitoring agricultural project before the implementation and after 1 year (source: WFP)


You want to collect data for your needs assessments and programme monitoring, but with COVID19 you exhausted all your options ?


Don’t give up! You’ll find in this post 7 ways of collecting data remotely with mobile, drone and even satellite technology. Let me know if you know other ways!!


1. Phone surveys



Phone surveys are broadly used in the humanitarian and development sector and were boosted with the COVID19. They are cheaper than face to face surveys and research show that data are as reliable as face to face surveys. You need however to make sure that people have access to phones but phone surveys are adapted to people with low level of literacy.


Several options are available to carry out phone surveys depending on your resources, context and objective:

· with your own team or you can hire few students or enumerators (I do not like much this option because it requests too much logistics and management).

· with an NGO or a university with demonstrated experience with (phone) surveys

· you can contract a private call centre (in country or outside the country) or a private company of mobile polling platform


Regardless of which option is chosen, you need to think of :


· a short questionnaire (maximum 10/12 minutes)


· Take time for a strong training for enumerators: it's better to take few more days to ensure quality of data. Think of including a presentation of your organization if you work with the private sector, they don’t necessarily know your sector, mandate, programmes and your jargon.


· Setting up and use a phone/ contact numbers database in advance. You can set up a phone number database when you register beneficiaries or when you carry out household surveys. Be careful about data protection, data privacy and systematically include an informed consent module.

Some private companies can provide phone numbers in a specific location.


· Sensitize and communicate : this is a KEY step if you want to get a correct response rate. Different communication channels can be used : radios, sms (with push sms option), social medias, TV, a telephone campaign targeting local leaders or key informants. Look at existing channels for a specific audience : facebook mum groups for example (yes they exist), whatsapp groups etc. This step is applicable to all mobile solutions detailed below.


· Closely monitor the results everyday and organize a debriefing with the operators to discuss issues with questions or answers and get a (qualitative) flavour of the results.


· If you do your own in-house phone survey, it is possible to programme the questionnaire on kobo and enter directly the data in this system (NO excel sheet !) : you will have access to your results in real time, results of better quality and easy to analyze.


· Incentives : do you plan to pay a small amount of money to the respondent when the questionnaire is completed ? I say YES ! Why ? Because it motivates people to respond and you increase your response rate. The incentive question applies to the other options described below (IVR, SMS, USSD) – this is up to you.


For more info :

· https://www.povertyactionlab.org/fr/node/84829


· and how adapting phone surveys to COVID19 https://www.povertyactionlab.org/fr/node/1104371



2. IVR service (Interactive Voice Response)



An IVR survey is a pre-recorded automated phone survey in which the customer responds by typing numerical responses using the keypad or, for some questions, vocally to a pre-recorded voice prompt. The IVR is a good option for people with low literacy.


Plan simple and closed questions to answer - an open ended question can be included at the end of the survey if you need more qualitative data such as « what are your main recommendations to improve our programme or our service? ».


IVR service requires a specialized software and hardware: you can contact mobile network operators, call centers or private companies which offer this type of service : You can check on Kopernik, a free online catalogue of tools and companies’ contact.


3. SMS service





You can also collect data with a SMS system. Surveys are usually sent using some form of bulk messaging technology where the questions are pre-scripted along with the necessary follow-up questions.


The questions are “pushed “ or sent to the respondents who reply with an SMS response, which then triggers the sending of the next question until the survey is completed.


The number of questions ranges between 8 to 15 questions and questions must be simple.


The standard encryptions of mobile network providers on SMS ensures that SMS survey data is always securely transmitted.


SMS survey is limited to those who have mobile phones and a sufficient level of literacy to respond.


SMS service requires a specialized software and hardware and you can contact mobile network operators, call centers or private companies which offer this type of service. You can check on Kopernik.


4. USSD service (Unstructured Supplementary Service Data)


A USSD survey is administered using a mobile network operator’s USSD technology, which is a menu-driven protocol. You usually use USSD with mobile network operators, when you want to recharge your credit, check your credit balance or get access to other services.


Questions with response options are “pushed” or sent to respondents, and they reply by selecting an option from the list supplied. This triggers follow-up questions and responses, which are captured automatically. USSD surveys allow for simple single-mention (yes/no) type responses where a quick answer is required.


Participants are sent a short-code and unique survey ID, and they are invited to participate in a survey. They dial the short code, enter their ID and answer the survey on any type of phone.


USSD technology creates a real-time connection during a USSD session to the server. The connection remains open, allowing a two-way exchange of data, and these sessions last only a few minutes. This means that surveys need to be extremely short to avoid attrition due to the session timing out.


USSD has limited functionality and is best for very short and simple surveys. USSD is limited to those who have mobile phonesand a sufficient level of literacy to respond.


USSD service requires a specialized software and hardware and you can contact mobile operators, call centers or private companies which offer this type of service. You can check on Kopernik.




5. Online and app surveys



Online surveys direct respondents to a hosted survey where they complete a pre- scripted form. These types of surveys target (high) educated audience who can write, read and have the resources to possess a smartphone and an access to internet.


You can use several free tools to design an online survey :


· Kobo toolbox or ODK collect renamed « Data Software For Social Good (DSFSG) » : a free and open source softwares (we love !) : you can design your questionnaire online, share the link and get real time results.


· Free online poll creators such as survey monkey : some are completly free or basic versions are free


· Social media : you can design and launch a poll with Twitter, Instagram and facebook.


To guarantee the success of your survey, work on COMMUNICATION,SENSITIZATION, PROMOTION around your survey if you want to have high response rate (refer to part 1.).

Respondents can be invited to take part via SMS, via an email or by clicking on a link on a webpage or banner advertisement as they browse.



6. Monitoring system and Complaint and feedback mechanisms



Another good way to collect data is HARNESSING data you are collecting with your monitoring system and your complaint and feedback mechanims such as toll free hotline, whatsapp groups, focal points feedbacks etc.


Their potential is often under-utilized despite they provide very rich information about the context and issues that men and women can face (beyond the programme you are implementing).


If your system is working well with a sufficient geographical coverage, you’ll get good insight of the situation in your area. Just take time to LISTEN what these women and men are saying to you.


7. Ultimate means for the geek and techies : drones and satellite imagery


If you are a geek or a techie or your colleague is, drones and satellite imagery uses are very powerful for needs assessments and mapping and monitoring changes.


Drones or UAV have numerous applications in the humanitarian sector, two of them are mapping and monitoring changes. Mapping is the most evolved form of drone use in the humanitarian sector today. Mapping drones have shown their greatest potential during the recovery phase after a disaster, or for disaster risk reduction work.



If you are looking at agricultural fields, big size infrastructures, rivers, roads, villages, satellite imagery can help you detect significant changes compare to a period of reference.



Satellite map showing the flood extent - comparison between a normal year (2015) and a flooded year (2016), Niger River, Mali (source: WFP)


Monitoring agricultural project before the implementation and after 1 year (source: WFP)


8. And please, don’t forget the basic rules of any survey you carry out: DOUBLE CHECK, TRIPLE CHECK your results with other data sources!


Using only one single method of data collection can lead to biased, erroneous or false results!


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