I have been lodged in Mahrajganj, Uttar Pradesh for the past month and a
half with the purpose of conducting the survey for two chapters of my doctoral
thesis. For this study, I have had the gracious support of the entire TCI team
and our partnering NGO Grameen Development
This work has often been fast, chaotic, and fun, and also
incredibly rewarding both personally and professionally. Some of the best experiences and
perspectives are gained from the field. The new understandings
can be thought-provoking, especially when they are learnt the hard way. As
such, I was inspired to extract and formalize some of my key learnings and
share my experience for the potential benefit of other researchers.
(Photo credit: Badri Nath Tiwari)
Go Local, Go Simple
Begin your search for the enumerators by going local. There
is unequivocally no advantage of hiring people from afar, spending money on
transportation and efforts on teaching them the local language.
Both of my
surveys were held in winter. That meant shorter days and even shorter
work-time. Compensate for any further delays and loss of time in the field by
hiring people who live locally.
My selection criteria were very simple: local people who are
literate (basic knowledge of Hindi and Bhojpuri), have some experience in
conducting surveys, have a good work ethic, and could drive motorcycles or
scooters to reach the villages. We received applications from 25 potential
candidates and to my surprise, all of them fulfilled all the criteria.
Obviously, I had to devise a new, effective filtering mechanism.
In the second
round all the candidates were asked to:
- arrive on time,
- read the IRB
approved consent statement, and
- drive a motorcycle GDS has in the office
This was a much better exercise as outcomes were objective.
Only 17 people came on time, and only 6 could read the consent statement. The
trepid glances we got after the enumerators saw the motorbikes were a reality
check for us. We decided to hire a car instead. At the end of the day, we
finalized the team of 6 enumerators ― a drastic reduction from the target of 10
and a recalculation of our expectations.
Seal the Deal
Once your team is finalized it is imperative to sign the
contract. For my first study, the team had to survey 20 villages. Since each survey took 20 minutes per person,
each enumerator was asked to cover at least 10 households in a day and hence a
team of 6 enumerators was expected to cover one village per day.
The contract was signed for one month. Fortunately for me, GDS
handled all the logistics. (Presence of a local NGO gives the researcher an
edge. Leverage that advantage if you have it!)
Make provisions for accommodation, and whether the salary is
inclusive of it or not. It is also customary for the employer to provide meals
and refreshments; make appropriate arrangements for the same.
Hire Brilliant Supervisor(s)
A field supervisor will serve as an educator, mentor, facilitator,
and evaluator. It is vitally important that your supervisor is an effective
communicator and demonstrates leadership skills. Fortunately for me, GDS
provided me an excellent supervisor. They also employed a graduate student to
help with orientation and project support. She had a good work ethic and
excellent PR management skills. We saved a lot of time by having her on the
team. We hit the ground running since the first day. She stuck with me for the
second survey, this time as a competent supervisor and a dear friend.
Enumerator training at the GDS office. (Payal Seth - standing) (Photo credit:
Talk, Paper, Nudges
Once you are done and dusted with the formalities and your
supervisors understand their responsibilities well, launch into the enumerator
training. Use the classic ice breakers, by introducing yourself and getting to
know them first.
Then begin explaining
the project, but be aware of where to draw the line.
For example, we were planning to undertake behavior change
communication and construction toilets in the village once the baseline survey
was done, but the enumerators were kept blinded to our treatments.
I also suggest that you do not bring out the tablets right
away. Instead get a hardcopy of your survey (yes, use paper!) and distribute it
to everyone. Go through each question. Make sure everybody is on board with the
questions and structure.
Discuss how the question ought to be asked. Make it clear to
the enumerators that they need to refrain from biasing the question by
unnecessarily nudging the respondents and suggesting the answers implicitly.
Build Digital Literacy: the fabled-tablets
Enumerators were informed about the use of tablets in the
survey before-hand but we had to compromise on the digital literacy, because,
um, there wasn’t any. Raised eyebrows and furtive glances welcomed the tablets
in the room. One of the enumerators chimed in by claiming that the cost of this
tablet would be equal to two months of his salary. Hence, you need to make sure
that you get your tablet back at the end of the day. Make it abundantly (and
yet not so terrifyingly) clear about the gravity of the loss of this device and
the replacement costs. We had numbered our tablets and assigned each specific tablet
to an enumerator and instructed them to return it to the supervisor at the end
of the day.
To begin familiarizing them with the tablets, keep it simple
at first and explain the two or three buttons’ purpose. Make them feel
comfortable with swipes, the pressure of touch and the keypad. Teach them the
function of all keys and specially the space and back-space key. Make sure they understand each option in the
We experienced that very often one of them will click on a
random button or proceed with an untimely swipe. That’s fine! It’s all part of
the learning process. While new enumerators are bound to make all sorts of
mistakes, it is also expected that under your patient supervision, they will learn
how to get back to their questionnaire and will be prepared for many, many more
In time, the enumerators became adept with tablet-based survey technology.
Practice, Practice, Practice
Everyone was really
excited when we started using the practice form! They were amazed at their
ability to operate the tablets with ease. Our practice form was a short 2-minute
form, which everyone was required to fill till the end. We took turns around
the table and made sure that they understood how to fill their name (text
response), age (numeric response), gender (single response) and what mode of
transportation they used to come to the office (multiple responses).
We then practiced for 2 days straight with our study
questionnaire. We conducted self-interviews, partner-interviews, interviews
with me and the supervisor, and even practice interviews with the staff at GDS.
Later, we compared the responses recorded across enumerators and addressed discrepancies
This exercise also turned out to be very beneficial for me
as I fine-tuned my questionnaire constantly over these two days. The
enumerators really grew in their confidence and skills. They were ready to head to the field.
Despite several insightful practice sessions, commencing the
work on field will offer new, challenging surprises. Therefore, to avoid contaminating
your project villages, always choose a village that is different from your
study village for the pilot test.
I was pleased to see that almost all my enumerators were comfortable
introducing themselves and could explain the purpose of this survey without any
hitch. Our field supervisor and I monitored each enumerator the first time he
or she conducted the survey, and to my delight, it went smoothly. They were
kept under strict supervision for the next 3 days.
The varying attitude and reception of each respondent was
the source of our daily dose of discussion, humor, learning and improving. Everyone
had to deal with a few people who simply went quiet in the middle of the
survey, or who were exceptionally inquisitive and instead began interviewing my
enumerators. We would regularly debrief and reflect over chai breaks in order
to discuss how each of them dealt with these situations. Advice from the rest
of the team was welcomed.
Supervising and observing as the enumerator conducts her first survey. (Photo credit:
There were other key lessons that these three days of pilot
testing taught me:
- keep power banks in the field (never give your enumerators
a ready-made excuse to come-back empty handed),
Survey design and tablet use:
- make it binding to answer all the questions in
- keep spell check in the key-pad off,
- include the time to begin and end the interview
in the form (it’s exceptionally useful for data monitoring later).
- train more enumerators than you require (we had
to fire one of them after a week),
- train your supervisor twice (once before and
once during the enumerator training).
Lead by Example
Project your best self when you are with your precious team
in the field. Model the character and behavior you wish to see from your team. Make
sure everybody feels that they have a stake in the project. Take good care of
them. Eat with them. Give them constant assurance that they could approach you
with any problem. If someone does approach you, then genuinely put in your best
effort to find solution for the same. After all, treating your people with
respect not only gets you respect; it helps create a cohesive and productive
My biggest take-away from this incredible journey is that
your enumerators need not be computer scientists. Your supervisor doesn’t need
to have elaborate data collection experience. A well-structured training and
persistent practice can overcome all potential glitches. More than any skill, good
natured people with the spirit of teamwork and a good work ethic will facilitate
smooth data collection. A congenial and accessible supervisor can hold the team
together. The quality of your data is a direct function of the cohesiveness of
the team. Compromise on the latter and the former will undeniably suffer.
Our complete team: 6 enumerators, field supervisors, partners from GDS and myself. Thank you all for your hard work and dedication!
By Payal Seth
Payal Seth is a second year Ph.D. student in the field of Applied Economics and Management at the Dyson School. As a TCI Scholar, her fieldwork focuses on linkages between sanitation and nutrition. Working with the partner NGO Grameen Development Services, Payal is examining the behavior change methodology known as Community-led Total Sanitation which stimulates a collective sense of disgust and shame among community members as they confront the crude facts about mass open defecation practices and its negative impacts on the entire community.