Bridging physical distance digitally – Learnings from remote data collection

Surabhi Bhanot

January 2021

The year 2020 has defied all apriori conceptions of normal, changing every aspect of life. Given the recurrent lockdowns, restrictions on travel, social distancing protocols, and the general inhibition to step out in the public realm; almost no sphere of the personal and professional world has remained the same. 

Social research is among the many fields that have undergone drastic shifts in their established, systemic ways of being carried out. This seems rather obvious, given that social research directly deals with human attitudes, thoughts and behaviors, and sources most  of its data through human interaction. Since forced isolation did not provide scope for in-person interactions, most research studies have resorted to the virtual space for connecting to people and gathering data. Ranking high within virtual means of collecting data is the telephonic survey- a methodology not unheard of but not used much. 

Development Solutions conducted an in-house, small scale investigation to dig deeper into the experiences of collecting data remotely. We wanted to understand how lack of face-to-face contact impacted processes and quality of data gathering. And we believed that the data collection enumerators, who engage in collecting data, would be our best bet to throw light upon this.

Three insights about remote data collection were gathered through interactions with some enumerators who have worked with us in various remote projects,. One, virtual interactions can never fully substitute for in-person interactions. When two people are not face-to-face, communication suffers because body language and other paralinguistic forms go amiss. This makes the transfer of ideas harder. Many enumerators believed that they might have misinterpreted responses or missed probing further simply because they couldn’t “see the respondents” and their “ways of responding” on call.

Additionally, what gets harder is the establishment of trust and rapport. Many respondents are unwilling to spare time for telephonic surveys or are hesitant to divulge information because they don’t know who is on the other end-, reducing the enumerator’s credibility. This suspicion often stops them from continuing with the survey, and if not, then definitely causes them to be less candid in their answers. In contrast, if the enumerators were near them, sitting in their living rooms and asking them questions, the whole setting would facilitate more honest disclosure. 

Finally, poor network coverage, audio lags, and inaccessibility to mobile devices still prevail in many parts of the country- which adds to the challenges of connecting to people remotely.

The points stated above make it clear that remote data collection is not easy. But are these challenges constant across all projects? The answer to this question was our second major insight. While problems in remote data collection are inherent to the very nature of the methodology, they surface more in projects involving issues considered “taboo”; working with information considered “sensitive” and “private.” Many enumerators shared snippets from projects that were particularly challenging to work on, and incidentally enough, most of them were around sexual and reproductive health issues. 

Given that the Indian society still doesn’t permit open dialogue around such topics, even in-person, it is hard to get respondents to open up over telephone calls- to people, they have never met or can’t see- about these issues. Thus, the success of remote data collection is contingent, among other factors, upon the topic of the project and the populations being dealt with. Unmarried adolescents are not expected to know or talk openly about matters of sexual health, making it harder for them to be candid.

There are challenges in remote data collection, however does that mean it is not a viable alternative to in-person data collection? Are we saying that field data collection does not come with its own set of problems? No. Many of these challenges are common in any form of data collection, ; however  as an enumerator said, “its easier to troubleshoot when we are present in the location.” 

No methodology of collecting data is fool-proof, and our investigators took this in their stride. Despite facing many of the above-stated hurdles, they came up with extremely feasible solutions to ensure data quality did not suffer. From spending extra time in developing rapport before the main survey, patiently explaining the purpose of calling to win trust, avoiding to rush through the protocol, and following-up numerous times, our investigators were able to pull-off remarkable numbers- close to 7000 adolescents being surveyed on SRH over 2 different projects, 3000 MSME workers being surveyed on the impact of COVID on their livelihood.

This brings us to the last major insight- personal diligence, problem-solving and collective team effort make paramount challenges seem manageable. Adaption is a circle of life and helps us become more resilient to uncertainties. This was shown to us by our enumerators. We shall continue to learn and continually modify our internal protocols, ensuring that we make remote data collection work to the best of our abilities in these times of distress.