This post was originally published on the AEA365 blog in January 2020. 

Hi! We’re Ghazia Aslam and Sarah Lunsford of EnCompass LLC, with some tips on the “virtues” of virtual data collection.

Virtual data collection has many benefits. With this year’s restrictions on travel, effective virtual data collection has become even more important. It can be quick to deploy, reduce cost and environmental footprint, achieve high coverage, and include geographically dispersed stakeholders who might not participate if data is collected in person.

It also has challenges: reduced participation, careless or incorrect responses survey fatigue, data security, connectivity—especially for marginalized and vulnerable populations—and difficulty in keeping participants interested. As evaluators, we need to engage with these challenges, including potential biases they can introduce.

We asked colleagues who have collected data virtually for many evaluations, long before the pandemic, to gather these tips for more effective virtual data collection.

Invest in trust building before and during data collection. Building trust is essential, especially with marginalized and vulnerable respondents. Already a challenge during in-person data collection, this is even harder virtually, since we cannot see body language. Our colleagues build trust before and during data collection, first by clearly sharing the purpose of the evaluation, so participants know what to expect, and information about data security and confidentiality. During data collection, we honor respondents’ choice to participate by building in multiple opportunities to revisit their consent.

Be creative and use multiple methods. Virtual platforms facilitate the use of methods that are less common during in-person data collection. For example, using photo, voice, and video elicitation, diaries, journals, and voice memos becomes easier when we are collecting data virtually.

Use methods that hold respondents’ attention. Participatory methods like social, community, or body mapping, free lists, ranking, diagramming, timelines, and photo voices can all support respondents’ engagement, and are well suited for virtual platforms.

Collect data asynchronously using multiple applications. Asynchronous data collection empowers respondents because they can choose when to respond to the data collector’s inquiry. They have time to consider their answers and can share materials to support their responses. It also helps us; we gain time to look through the materials before posing additional questions. This can produce thoughtful exchanges in which we and our respondents both have opportunities to consider, clarify, and expand our meaning.

Asynchronous data collection can take place on platforms requiring less bandwidth than synchronous video interviews—voice memos, WhatsApp, video messages, or even email. Thus, we can reach respondents who lack reliable internet service. Online discussion forums are another good platform, because respondents can react to and build on messages from other participants.

Tailor communication channels and technology to the respondents. Select the platforms people actually use in the locations and populations where you are collecting data. Using different channels with different respondents allows us to reach as many individuals as possible. Be careful to maintain consistency, though, by asking the same questions of all stakeholders.

For more tips, please check out our brief on the Virtues of Virtual MEL.