Nature Tech

New Survey Methods Bring Greater Speed and New Issues

July 15, 2014

Social surveys using tablet computers cost less than 40% of similar surveys using paper forms because interviews went faster and there were no additional time was spent on data entry. Photo credit: Jessica Musengezi/TNC

As conservationists strive to integrate nature conservation with human outcomes, face-to-face surveys help gather the information on people’s lives and choices that is essential for designing effective programs and assessing outcomes. The new generation of lightweight and rugged tablet computers — together with simple, user-friendly survey software — can speed data collection and reduce costs for such surveys, reports Craig Leisher, a senior social scientist for the Conservancy.

Researchers often need survey data to understand the human elements of conservation programs – such as whether biodiversity protection affects incomes or how flooding affects migration. In the past, they would design a survey, hire and train a team of people who could speak the local language, print surveys and send the team out with clipboards in hand.

Leisher’s study, published in the journal Social Sciences, compares three surveys that the Conservancy carried out with partner organizations in East Africa. Two used this paper-based approach and a third used iPad mini’s and QuickTapSurvey software.

More Expensive Technology. Less Labor.

The cost of the six iPad minis they used was more than twice the cost of paper, pens and clipboards used in the paper-based surveys, but researchers quickly made up the difference in time. On average, interviewers got through 63% more interviews in a day when using tablets than when using paper.

The savings mounted further when they included the costs of data entry and checking — an often time-consuming and laborious process that happens once all those paper data sheets make it back to the office. The tablet survey incurred no additional costs for data entry and required little additional time to find and fix errors. Overall, Leisher concludes that the cost per interview when using tablets was only about 38% of the cost using paper forms.

This basic result was not a huge surprise; health researchers using tablets have achieved similar savings. But Leisher identifies a few issues in using the tablets that may affect the time savings or even the validity of results for surveys using tablets.

Unanticipated Issues

It took surveyors who were inexperienced with computers about five days to reach full efficiency at completing the interviews, so smaller surveys may not achieve the same cost savings. The tablets easily store a full day’s worth of interviews, but the safest practice is to upload data each evening. In situations where that is not possible, there will be greater risk of losing survey data if a tablet is lost or damaged.

In one unusual twist, some respondents sat next to interviewers, so they could see how the new technology worked. That meant that respondents read — rather than heard — the questions. That’s a methodological glitch to avoid in future surveys. When people hear the questions, they tend to choose the last answer given, but when they read them, they more often choose the first.

Leisher was not able to determine how often this happened and the effect is almost certainly less than 5%, in any case. But it’s a reminder to beware of unexpected issues with even the most promising new methods.

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