Can the use of technology in surveys change the nature of responses?

In the past, surveys were done on paper, either through a designed questionnaire or by someone frantically writing down interview responses. When computers came around, people would be hired to type in responses for later analysis.

Nowadays, with the advent of cheap and portable computing, research projects are rapidly moving toward fully digital methods of data collection. Tablet computers are easy to operate, can be cheaply replaced, and now can access the internet for easy uploading of data from the field.

Surveyors like them because large teams can be spread out over a wide space, data can be completely standardized and the tedious process of data entry can be avoided.

Of interest to me, however, is whether the technology is influencing the nature of the responses given. That is, will someone provide that same set of responses in a survey using digital data collection methods as in a paper survey?

Recently, we attempted using a tablet based software for a small project on livestock possession and management on Mbita Point in Western Kenya. I intended it as a test to see if a particular software package might be a good fit for another project I`m working on (the one that`s paying the bills).

We had only limited success. The survey workers found the tablets clunky and a number of problems with the Android operating system made it more trouble than the survey was actually worth. Of interest, though, was how the technology distracted the enumerators from their principle task, which was to collect data.

Enumerators would become so wrapped up in trying to navigate the various buttons and options of the software that they couldn`t effectively concentrate on performing the survey. Often they appeared to skip questions out of frustration or would just frantically select one of the many options in the hope of moving on to the next one.

In a survey of more than 100 questions, the process started taking far more time than households were willing to give. We eventually had to abandon the software and revert to a paper based method.

Surveys went from lasting more than one hour, to taking under 30 minutes. Workers were more confident and had more time to interact with the respondents. Respondents had more of an opportunity to ask questions and consider the meaning of what they were being asked. They offered far more information than we expected and felt that they were participating in the survey as a partner and not just as a passive victim.

One of our enumerators noted that people react differently to a surveyor collecting data on the tablets than with paper. She described collecting data with technology as being “self absorbed” and alienating to the respondents. Collecting data on paper, however, was seen as a plus. “They can see me writing down what they say and feel like their words are important.”

I`m thinking that the nature of the responses themselves might be different as well. Particularly with complex questions of health and disease, often the surveyors will have to explain the question and give a respondent a chance to ask for further clarification. Technology appears to inhibit this process, perhaps compromising the chance for a truly reasoned response.

While I am absolutely not opposed to the use of technology in surveys, I think that the survey strategy has to be properly thought through and the challenges considered. At the same time, however, data collection is a team effort and requires a proper rapport between community members and surveyors who often know each other.

Is technology restricting our ability to gather good data? Could the use of technology even impact the nature of the response by pushing them in ways which really only tell us what we want to believe rather than what actually exists?

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About Pete Larson

Assistant Professor of Epidemiology at the Nagasaki University Institute for Tropical Medicine

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