Sri Lanka - GFP programme

Data Collection: “Fail to Prepare, Prepare to Fail”

By Alex Hamilton, GFP Oxford PhD scholar

Collecting data properly is difficult. In theory, research must be organised, consistent and clear so that people can trust the results and reproduce them. But in reality, field researchers face complex challenges that limit the degree to which they can conform to the principles of well-conducted scientific research. The process of collecting the right data is about a balance between what is scientifically desirable, and what is realistically possible. In this piece, I will build on my previous blog about methods testing and will identify some common problems, solutions and tips based on my experience in the field. I hope that these suggestions and considerations can help GFP volunteers, and encourage them to take a minute to consider their approach to data collection in the peace-building programmes they run. Although this piece does not refer to specific GFP data collection or general M&E procedures, it could still provide – I hope! – tips on how to improve your own data collection skills.

I have drawn up a table of common challenges that GFP volunteers might face during data collection in the field; some problems are drawn directly from my own specific experiences in Northern Sri Lanka where I conducted research which was supported by GFP. This is not an all-inclusive list but highlights some crucial concerns for fieldwork.

Common Issues in Data Collection
Pre During Post Constant Challenges
Recruitment of research participants Not enough time to collect data properly Relevance of data to participants and stakeholders Cultural differences and taboos
Recruitment of research staff Local conditions (weather, for example) Missing data Technical difficulties
How to measure it? Standardisation of methods No time for proper feedback Lack of research experience
Who to measure? Lack of contact information Data collection bias Difficult relationships with stakeholders
Lack of knowledge about research context Political atmosphere Communication of results Resources
Locating participants Late or absent research staff and participants Conflicting results Ethical issues
Risk assessment Participants and stakeholders attitudes and beliefs Failure to use findings Safety

Some challenges, such as resources, can be a problem at any time during a project. Other challenges, such as assessing risks adequately, are crucial before a data collection begins. This is to ensure your research staff and participants are protected from any potential harm. With all these challenges, how can we ensure our data collection is of good quality?

Solutions

My first advice is to plan. The best solution to many of the problems highlighted in the table is effective planning. Most obstacles that researchers come up against can be overcome with a well thought out and implemented plan. Planning can ensure that you are prepared with alternative options when problems arise. I have found that a data collection plan is an excellent first step and can help you measure your outcomes and impacts more effectively and accurately.

I suggest considering some crucial questions such as:

1. Why am I collecting this data?
2. What data collection methods am I going to use?
3. Who will I collect data from?
4. When will I collect it??
5. Who will I recruit to help collect it, and where?
6. What are the context specific problems I might face, and how might I address them?

A detailed plan will enable you to clearly address potential problems, and come up with locally relevant solutions. In the table of challenges above I highlighted resources; this is one of the most commonly cited problems for research projects. Planning can help you identify, gain and use resources better. Planning is not a new solution, but it is the single most important one, and can help you with most problems. I have outlined some more tips that I have found useful while conducting field research:

1. Take a minute:

My first tip is to stop, take a step back, and think about what you are trying to measure. Without considering the aims of the data collection process, you will not start on the right foot. Before challenges arise, it is important to make sure you take a moment and think things through. It can be very helpful to talk the project through with colleagues, friends and family; they may provide a new perspective on your work.

2. Surround yourself with good people you trust and respect:

Most often, you cannot do everything yourself. Finding good, committed and trustworthy research team members is crucial. Confidence in the ability of your fellow researchers will allow you to relax and lead the process with a clear head. Constant worrying will cause you to make poor decisions and can damage the collection process. Surround yourself with good and motivated team, allocate roles at the beginning and allocate data collection roles early, and you will have a good start. Make sure you know whom you are recruiting and what they are capable of!

3. Train your data collectors well and hold on to them:

A well-trained research team can save the day. Many times I have made mistakes that my team members have righted. Ensuring that your data collectors have a good knowledge of your protocol will ensure that data is collected in a timely and accurate fashion. Make sure you budget for their training and keep your team happy; they are crucial for success. Once you have trained a research team, try and keep them working with you. Their knowledge of the project is vital and any investment you make will be well paid off.

4. Identify key informants and “movers”:

We all know someone who can “make things happen”. These people are essential in data collection. They know everybody in the community, can provide access to research participants, convince a local politician to support your project and ensure local legitimacy! These people make all the difference to a data collection team. Think strategically about whom you need to talk to and get them on your side – early enough.

5. Know your neighbourhood:

A good knowledge of your research context is crucial in data collection. What you can and cannot do, and where you can and cannot do it is key information. In Sri Lanka, I travelled 50km to buy a speaker, when there was an electronics shop behind my house.

6. Always keep a notebook – and use it:

A notebook is a researcher’s best friend. When you have a data collection plan, use your notebook to note down if you stray at all from the plan. This will help you paint a picture of the situation when reporting your results. Use your notebook to remind yourself of the research context. I always refer to my notes from Sri Lanka when writing up, it takes me right back there.

7. When you do not know something, do not be afraid to ask for help:

We are very often too proud or embarrassed to ask for help. Do not be. Ask other colleagues or your research team, ask community members, ask GFP, ask anyone you know. We should never be afraid to accept that we are in over our heads and need some help. Realising our own limitations and scope for improvement is an important process of collecting data. I can think of many occasions when asking for help would have made my research much easier – I learned it the hard way!

The easiest way to address problems is to consider them before they arise, through planning. Sometimes, this is not possible, and problems will crop up that you cannot plan for. Remain flexible and keep your objectives in sight. Many of the tips I have mentioned are about the research team you recruit: people are crucial to the success of any data collection process. In combination with planning, careful selection, training and maintenance your team will help you overcome most challenges you may face in the field. I hope these have been helpful; if anyone has any further questions feel free to email me on alexander.hamilton@stx.ox.ac.uk

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