There are a range of phone-based data collection methods that can be considered to collect data remotely. We describe these options in the table below along with the strengths and limitations of each.

Table 1: Descriptions of mobile phone–based modes of data collection with pros and cons (adapted from Dabalen 2016 and 60 decibels and World Bank 2020)

More detailed guidance on using SMS and IVR-based surveys during the COVID-19 response can be found here.

When deciding between these remote data collection methods consider the following:

  • Objectives of your study - Clearly define your research questions. This will determine the type of data you need to collect and how to best capture this information.
  • Type of data to be collected - Some remote data collection methods, such as telephone calls are more suited to qualitative, open-ended questions, whereas others are designed primarily for quantitative, multiple choice or closed-answer questions, such as IVR, and some can handle both.
  • The population you will be targeting, their needs and preferences for data collection - Define who your target participants are and where they are located. Consider the languages spoken by these groups, their literacy levels, the mobile coverage in the area, and access and use of mobile phones by the community as this will help you to identify data collection methods that are suitable. For example, if smartphones are not very common in your population, using app-based interviews would not be appropriate.
  • The local context - It is important to have a good understanding of the local context, including cultural customs and norms. When choosing a data collection method you should always check that it is appropriate for the local context and acceptable to the community, especially when using new methods, such as IVR, which they may be unfamiliar with.
  • Number and depth of questions to be asked - Some methods will allow you to ask more questions than others. For example, if you want to ask lots of in-depth questions, a telephone call or online survey would be a more suitable platform to collect data compared to using SMS.
  • Data quality and response rates - Some methods are more likely to have low response rates. This should be considered when calculating sample size and cost. Some methods may also be susceptible to response errors, particularly if the population is not familiar with this method of data collection, for example IVR.
  • Access to technology - Some methods such as online surveys require respondents to use a smartphone or computer. All the methods mentioned above require some level of phone access. This may exclude certain members of the population. For example, women typically have reduced access to phones compared to men and vulnerable groups such as people with disabilities or crisis-affected populations may also have reduced access to phones.
  • Cost - SMS and IVR are less expensive methods for researchers, however, they are relatively expensive for respondents, unless phone credit is provided. Costs incurred by the data collection team will depend on personnel costs, phone costs, whether incentives are given, length of the survey, number of call attempts and the mode of data collection.

It is also possible to combine different modes of data collection. Different approaches will suit different projects depending on the objectives, timeframe and budget.

There are several software platforms and remote survey providers, with varying levels of service and technology, that can be used to support data collection via the methods listed in Table 1. In the table below we summarise the functionality of some of these.

Table 2 (adapted from 60 decibels).

Note: this table is not exhaustive, there are a growing number of providers that exist. Service provision associated with each company may change over time also. It is recommended that you contact the companies directly for more information on the methods of data collection they can provide, quotations and details.

You will need to contact the relevant providers to obtain quotes and discuss whether their platform suits your project’s needs. Some questions to think through when speaking with potential providers include:

  • What data security measures do they have in place?
  • How will you be able to access, analyse and share the data?
  • Does your organisation have the technical equipment and capacity needed to access and analyse the data?
  • What will the costs be to your organisation and to participants?
  • Does the company have processes in place for seeking informed consent from participants?

Other things to consider prior to conducting remote data collection include:

  • Are any regulatory restrictions around conducting remote data collection in your context? These might include requirements for ethical approval. In some countries there may also be restrictions around random digit dialling.
  • Are any other organisations planning to do remote data collection in your study population? Collaborating on data collection may reduce ‘survey fatigue’ - where populations become frustrated if approached by multiple organisations doing data collection on COVID-19. We recommend sharing results of any data collection with national or regional governments and with other organisations working in your area. Where possible data should also be shared with populations.

Want to learn more about remote data collection?

Editor's Note

Authors: Fiona Majorin
Reviewers: Lauren D’Mello-Guyett, Poonam Trivedi, Tracy Morse, Erica Wetzler, Michael Joseph, Holta Trandafili
Last update: 15.06.2020

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