Imagining Data Gathering in the post pandemic World

O. Venkat Sai

July 2021

Data has been the catchword across different industries over the last two decades. “Data is the new oil” is a phrase apparently coined by British Mathematician and Data Scientist, Clive Humby and backed up by different global publications. And it is true, raw data may not seem much on its own but once synthesized it provides crucial insights to improve the efficiency and delivery of projects for industries. Social sector, too, is no exception to this and data has played a huge role in building robust social sector intervention designs for projects associated with different thematic areas. The Indian Social sector has witnessed a massive growth in the last two decades, and data collection is a vital gear needed for the smooth functioning of this ecosystem. Yet as the world enters the second year of the Covid-19 pandemic, this gear is perhaps the one that has been affected quite significantly. That is not to say other aspects have not, but this blog will try to look at this aspect and how Covid-19 may have affected this detail of the development sector and what can be the way forward in a post-pandemic world.

Data collection in a country as huge as India both in terms of geography and demographics, is a colossal process. This process till very recently was largely done using analogue methods although the advent of the technology age has seen a rapid introduction of tech into the data collection processes. This has been capitalized by the social sector organizations in improving the quality of their interventions. Data collection is critical in gathering grass root level information to assess needs, understand cultural/social attitudes and practices of target groups, to understand ground level institutional challenges which all help in building a case for the development of effective intervention design and development. Data collection is also used for impact assessment and monitoring and evaluation of interventions and based on that information strategic guidelines are formulated and disseminated. 

The Covid-19 pandemic has created some major operational gaps in the social sector. The entire past year has seen many traditional data collection processes disrupted, from periods of complete suspension to working in remote and limited capacity, the social sector much like the other industries faced many hardships. The suspension and virtual transitions were done to stop the spread, though it effected the social sector from physically accessing and engaging with the target groups they have been working with. Yet the social sector has tried to innovate and adapt to these difficulties, organizations have started utilizing telephonic methods to collect data, they have reached out to their grass root level networks and created mechanisms to continue this vital aspect of data gathering slowly yet sturdily. 

However, it must be pointed out that the ability to conduct telephonic/virtual data collection is largely advantageous to national and international organizations with huge funding channels, and their regional partners. Organizations like CIFF and Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have extensive IT and M&E teams working round the clock to work and introduce innovations for their partners to make the transition towards digitization. But there are numerous grass root organizations who have an arduous journey of transition towards the virtual mode as this pandemic has directly impeded their mode of operations, both for implementation and data collection for impact assessment and monitoring. The smaller organizations have indeed started making a transition as quickly as they can but there is a significant need in terms of capacity building that needs to be addressed. A lot of the field workers are often needing to have sessions on new technology products that are introduced. This process is generally gradual, but under the pandemic circumstances this may have to be expedited. For smaller organizations this increases the financial burden which may sometimes be too huge to bear.

Qualitative data collection processes have also taken a hit, these processes tend to be conducted physically yet these have had to move to remote processes and adapted into a virtual mode. This does pose some issues for the data being collected as qualitative data processes have been effectively utilized to corroborate quantitative data; qualitative research needs the active participation of the researcher to gauge into insights and understand nuances of the responses, as they play a critical role in understanding attitudes and practices. The nuances not only come from the responses but also observations that are done in the field setting, hence, virtual process may slightly undermine the data coming out of qualitative processes like Focus Group Discussions. 

The data collection landscape has been altered by the pandemic. It has brutally exposed lacunae in the eco-system which may adversely affect the interventions undertaken by grass root level organizations; if they are not able to build their capacities towards including tech in their M&E and impact assessment processes. There also exists a huge accessibility gap in the rural spaces even though the world is moving towards a smart future dictated by technology, marginalized populations seldom own smart phones or rather cannot afford them. This will especially be a difficult gap to cover at the grassroot level that will need to be addressed. This lack of accessibility impedes the ability to gather reliable data as there is a huge logistical cost associated with back checks especially in studies requiring large geographies. This in turn means that such data can undermine the effectiveness of any planned interventions.

It is here, I believe that though the pandemic has been devastating it offers us an important opportunity to chart a more inclusive way forward. Larger organizations need to actively promote creation of capacity building forums which include the isolated organizations and assist them in building their technical skills. Local and state level of organizational collectives should be created to facilitate partnerships and thematic knowledge sharing and building partnership with the communities. These collectives in turn should also be responsible in easing communication with the national and state level government, who are an essential stakeholder in the success of any developmental process in the country. Qualitative methods are slightly difficult to address, yet regular interactions via new tech processes should be taken up by the field implementation teams to normalize tech in discussions and data collection for the beneficiaries. The significant damage to the data collection process highlights that there is a need to build stronger linkages with and among grassroot organizations as well as a deeper involvement in their capacity building as they are the ones who are constantly engaging with the community and are privy to ground realities. The data collection process is an essential aspect for a thriving social sector ecosystem and organizations on the ground are critical for making the interventions effective by providing relevant insights, hence building capacities of ground level cohorts not only effects data collection but the entire functioning of the social sector ecosystem.

Venkat Sai is a Senior Project Coordinator at Development Solutions. He has worked in implementation and research spaces and has experience in qualitative research methods, capacity building and stakeholder management.