It’s been over a month since I last bored you all with details of my work but believe it or not it’s not all safaris and cultural immersion these days. So here’s what has actually been occupying the vast majority of my waking hours of late. As I previously mentioned I have created a lengthy survey which focuses on a few broad themes:
First, Household Roster – who lives here? Second, Employment Details – what do they do for a living? how much do they work and how much do they earn? Third, Consumption & Assets – what do they buy and what do they own? Fourth, Water water water – what sources do they use? how far away is each? how do they collect? who collects water and how much time do they spend collecting? how much do they use for various activities? and how does rainwater play into all of this? Fifth, Social Networks – who knows who? who likes who? who is widely respected in the village and who is active in the community? Finally, Behavioral Games – simple scenarios that try to elicit risk and time preferences, much in the same vein as my senior work at Middlebury.
That’s a gross oversimplification of a survey that has over 1,000 questions (when you considering asking many questions about each of the 10+ people in a given household, and asking other questions about each of 40 other households in a village sample) and will take about 90 minutes to administer. So that’s kept me on my toes. But what’s been the real focus for the last three weeks is moving this beast of a survey from a clean and simple Excel spreadsheet into a software program called Pendragon Forms which is used to conduct surveys on PDAs such as the Palm Pilot or in our case the HP iPAQ series device. Forms is a very powerful tool in that it is relatively simple to program but still gives the survey designer lots of freedom – if they can figure out the tricks. Once on the PDA the survey functions much like an online survey that you have likely seen before – questions and pre-coded answers that allow you to “select one”, choose “yes or no”, rate something on a scale of “1 to 10”, etc. The difference is in our case the enumerator is the one inputting the answers, not the respondent. The value of electronic data collection is hotly debated in this industry – even within IPA some professors swear by it and others won’t even consider it. Pros and cons:
Pro – Complete control over the movement from one question to the next. In all these surveys there are many skip patterns, ie: if the answer is A, go to question 5, if it’s B, go to question 10. With a paper survey you can only hope that your enumerators are paying attention and following instructions. PDAs give the programmer complete control over what action is taken every time a response is entered.
Pro – Erase the potential for illegible or incomprehensible survey responses. The ink doesn’t run and the 5s never look like 6s. That’s nice. Also, if an enumerator accidentally enters an age of 150 instead of 15 I can set the program to catch this unlikely observation and prompt a correction on the spot.
Pro – Eliminate the total headache that is data entry. The only thing more stressful then preparing for a survey is dealing with sloppy data entry companies, or so I’ve heard. Fortunately I’ll never have to find out – at the end of each day the data from completed surveys are transferred directly to my hard-drive and immediately backed up (about a dozen times!).
Pro – Cut costs. Printing 3,240 copies of a 40 page survey costs real money. As does paying the sloppy data entry teams to enter each of those 130,000 pages, twice. Twice not because they will mess up the first time (which they will), but twice because double entry is the only acceptable standard and the only way to conduct error rate checks, which usually results in us sending them back for round three. Either way the manual entry of 260,000+ pages of survey data eats up a good chunk of change. Even when you consider the cost of purchasing new PDAs for a large survey team the savings are real.
Personally those four reasons seemed pretty good so I threw my weight behind electronic data collection and we decided to take the plunge. While I still believe this is the right thing to do and should pay off in the long run, using PDAs frontloads much of my work and demands a level of preparation above and beyond locating a safe dry place to store stacks of paper surveys for a later date (ok, there’s a lot more too it than that!). After three solid weeks of Pendragon Forms programming what I can say is that there is a very real reason why the program has a small band of IPAers around the world contemplating ways to rig a skeet launchers to toss up PDAs for target practice. One example – the creators of Pendragon Forms decided that, as if correcting hundreds of little screens in a row wasn’t punishment enough, every time you hit the Backspace bar they would cheerily remind you of your mistake with a short sharp BEEP! Thousands upon thousands of BEEP! Another, there is nothing really intuitive about the program, you just kind of have to learn it step by step. Where are those steps located? In the user manual. The 599 page user manual.
So those are the cons. The pros still have it, but they are mostly long term while the cons are immediate. I hope to be bragging about smooth sailing soon.