Calls, featured, Notebook

Remote qualitative data collection: Lessons from a multi-country qualitative evaluation

By Mehjabeen Jagmag *

Like most researchers who had planned to begin their research projects earlier this year, our research team found our data collection plans upended by the pandemic. We had designed our research guides, received ethical clearance and completed training our research teams for a multi-country endline evaluation of an education programme in Ghana, Kenya and Nigeria much before we heard of the COVID-19 pandemic.

A few days before our teams travelled to their respective data collection sites, phone calls started pouring in – schools were closed indefinitely, travel between cities was restricted, and we were beginning to understand how much the COVID-19 pandemic would change our lives. After a few weeks of waiting and watching, it became apparent that we could not continue in-person data collection.

We revised our research guides and prepared ourselves for conducting remote phone-interviews with our research participants. Given that this was the third and last round of data collection in our multi-year panel research, we had previously collected phone numbers of our research participants and acquired permission to be able to contact them on the phone for further research. We set up remote research desks for the team and began preparation for data collection.

What we were unsure about was whether our research plans would be successful. Accounts of fraudulent callers promising medical remedies and peddling fake health insurance packages had made people wary of responding to unknown phone numbers. We were not sure how many of the phone numbers we had collected in the previous year would still be working, and most importantly, we were not sure how our research participants were faring under the lockdown and whether they would want to speak with us. Finally, our research participants included primary school students, who were an essential voice in our study. We were keen to conduct interviews but were not sure if this would be feasible – would parents trust us enough to speak to us and consent to their children speaking to us? Once we secured consent from parents, would children provide assent? As trust was the key element to completing our research successfully, we devised a data collection plan that included the following elements, that are likely to be necessary for future remote data collection.

Training and retraining for remote data collection

We spent time discussing as a team what the potential challenges may be and how we plan to respond to them. We drew up a collective list of answers that we could draw on to communicate clearly and effectively about the evaluation, respond to any queries and alleviate any concerns that our participants had. This list and knowledge grew, and we collected data, and debrief meetings with the teams at the end of each data helped ensure this was a live document.

Seek feedback from key informants

We contacted community leaders and headteachers to enquire about how we should approach data collection with school and community participants. They provided important contextual information that was occasionally specific to each community. We used this information to improve our introductory messages, the time and dates we called and how we approached research participants.

Seek introductions from trusted leaders

We also asked community leaders and headteachers to support our recruitment process by sending messages to the participants about our research before it began. Doing so helped minimise any uncertainty of the veracity of our calls. Where relevant, we compensated them for their airtime.

Give participants time to prepare for the interview

We shared information about our organisation and the research objective over text messages or calls, which gave research participants enough time to decide whether they wanted to participate. It also helped plan to speak at a time would suit them best for a discussion, and also consult with their family and children if they wanted to participate in the research.

Ensure continuity of research teams

As this was an endline evaluation, we had research team members who participated in previous rounds of data collection calling the participants they were likely to have visited in the past. Where this was possible, it increased trust and facilitated easy conversations.

Prepare case-history notes

We prepared short case history notes about the programme and school and what we had learned from previous research rounds for each school to build confidence that our intentions and credentials were genuine. These notes helped remind research participants of our last conversation, helped us focus on what has changed since that last conversation, which in turn helped keep conversations short and in general proved to be a useful conversation starter.

Save time at the beginning and end for questions

We ensure research participants had enough time to ask us about the programme, our motivations, go over the consent form, understand why we wanted to speak with the children or for children to ask parents for their permission before we began our interviews. To ensure that that the conversation did not feel rushed, we designed shorter research guides.

Plan for breaks or changes when interviewing with young participants

When speaking with students, we anticipated time to break and distractions during the call, which helped maintain a relaxed pace during the interview. If students were uncomfortable with phone interviews, we, eased the conversation to a close to minimise any distress caused to the participant.

Summary and Conclusion

We completed data collection in all three countries, albeit with a less ambitious research plan that we originally intended for an in-person research study. The key objective of our research was to collect the optimal amount of data that would inform the programme evaluation while making the interview process convenient and comfortable for the research participants involved. To do so, we have learned that it is vital for participants to have confidence in the researchers and the motive for collecting data. Planning before we began data collection and updating our knowledge as the research progressed proved invaluable to our experience.

* Mehjabeen Jagmag is a Senior Consultant with Oxford Policy Management.

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