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Data-collection by frontline organisations – lessons from the field

September 24, 2020

The Freedom Fund’s south-eastern Nepal hotspot has been supporting Harawa-Charawa communities since 2014 to protect and advocate for their own rights. Recently, the communities were able to secure commitments from three municipal governments to fund data collection to assess the needs of Harawa-Charawa households. This is the first government-endorsed survey of its kind, and these findings will directly inform policies and allowances to disadvantaged community members. To support our NGO partners in this exercise, the Freedom Fund provided technical support to improve the quality and utility of the data being gathered.

Across the international development sector, there is a growing emphasis on data collection by frontline organisations, especially during the period of the coronavirus pandemic where it may be difficult for researchers to access remote sites. The Freedom Fund’s technical support to our partner NGOs has revealed a number of important lessons, which may be useful to others planning similar work:

1) Time invested upfront in the training of enumerators really does pay off

Training for enumerators is sometimes carried out fairly quickly, especially when timelines are tight and there is a desire to ‘get on with the work’. However, proper training is crucial for surveying success and a worthwhile investment. Training should ensure enumerators fully understand the whole questionnaire, including the rationale behind each question and be able to explain it to respondents in a consistent way.

Training should include plenty of role play with the questionnaires, as subtle issues can be ironed out this way and it helps to build the confidence of the interviewers. Importantly, training should help enumerators recognise their own opinions and norms, as frontline NGO workers who are passionate advocates for human rights can find it difficult to conceal their sentiments. Training needs to ensure the survey is administered in an objective, unjudgmental and confidential manner, in order to encourage honest disclosures by survey respondents.

2) Great field supervisors are the key to timely, quality data collection

The field supervisor plays a critical role in improving the quality and consistency of data collected. The supervisor can help identify misunderstandings as they arise, and be an early responder to address implementation issues in a timely manner. Field supervisors also play an important role in back-checks, an invaluable way of monitoring the quality of information being gathered and pinpointing issues with specific survey questions or enumerators.

Among frontline NGOs that are mostly oriented towards service delivery, identifying suitable field supervisors may be difficult. We would recommend identifying individuals who are more ‘data literate’ and have great problem-solving skills. The field superiors may not necessarily be a senior member of the NGO or an expert on trafficking or human rights, in this role practical competencies are most important. 

3) Digital survey tools should be used wherever possible

The tide is moving away from large-scale surveys using paper hard-copies, and for good reason! With the use of widely available tools – such as ODK and SurveyGizmo – it is now possible to produce high-quality digital surveys and upload them to tablets for immediate data capture in the field. For this project, digital data capture was possible by caching the survey form and survey data, even though there was poor internet connectivity across many of the survey sites.

The main advantages of digital data capture are: automated skip-patterns which reduce the numbers of mistakes or illogical answers; ease of branching of questions for different respondent groups; and eliminating re-entering of data from paper to digital format, which saves a huge amount of time and avoids additional errors introduced through this extra step.

If full digitisation isn’t an option, having the survey digitised and having enumerators upload from paper to the online tool at the end of the day can be an effective compromise.

Setting up digital surveys can be finicky for large questionnaires, it requires strong knowledge of data structures as well as some basic coding. This is probably beyond the skillset of many frontline NGOs, and as such, we would recommend either providing intense support to a technically-minded staff, or remotely setting this up for the frontline NGOs. Careful attention to skip patterns, branching logics and client-side data validation is vital to avoid wrong or missing data which gets magnified later on in the process.

At the end of the day, we believe that frontline NGOs should not only be the ‘user’ of data and evidence, they should be directly involved in the design, collection and analysis of that evidence. Nonetheless, we should set realistic expectations about their expertise and skillsets, and not expect anti-trafficking NGOs to become research institutions – proper investment of time and effort should be planned at the onset, as well as hands-on support and timely troubleshooting. Over time, having more NGOs engage in data processes will build consensus towards a more fact-driven approach to tackling slavery, decreasing reliance on intuitive responses and anecdotal reactions.

The findings from this research are currently being finalised and the project is due to complete before the end of 2020.

Photo credit: Jenna Mulhall-Brereton

Written by
Orla Jackson