A development researcher’s best friend

Asking about food consumption isn't as easy as it sounds. The software marketed by Surveybe allows field researchers to collect more accurate data by providing images to go with survey questions. Photo by: Surveybe

For organizations engaged in providing development assistance, being able to collect meaningful data has become essential not just to the success of individual projects, but their ability to compete in an increasingly crowded marketplace.

That’s because private-sector investors and government donors – from the World Bank to the U.K. aid agency and Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation – are demanding value for money. They’re not just asking for results, but expect their partners to implement aid projects in the most efficient way while maximizing the number of beneficiaries.

In today’s competitive business climate, and with many traditional aid agencies considering – if not pursuing – budget cuts, basing one’s work on sound data has never been more necessary to achieve results.

“Evaluation is a hot topic,” said Louise Broadbent, co-founder and managing director of Surveybe, a data collection and research company. “You can’t implement any sort of development project these days unless you incorporate a baseline, a midline and an endline assessment.”

Collecting the necessary data is often easier said than done. To this day, researchers fan out with pen and paper to conduct surveys – asking rural villagers about their eating habits, urban dwellers about social protections and refugees about their families, for instance. Those who do use computerized survey methods tend to wrestle with software, cumbersome coding and long delays between data collection and analysis.

As a result, even in today’s data-driven world, development projects may be based on information that is incomplete, misleading or outright wrong. The potential impact on a development project can be huge, according to Aidan Coville, who works with the Development Impact Evaluation Initiative, an umbrella organization for the World Bank’s research and evaluation activities.

Survey firms, too, often overpromise and underdeliver, Coville suggested.

“Most organizations have a pressure to just say yes to everything, and then they end up halfway through a survey not being able to complete it as planned,” he told Devex. “There’s a tendency for people to underestimate the intensity and resource requirement of data collection. But by trying to save early on, you tend to spend more at the end of the day.”

“While I think there’s a lot of competition,” Coville said, “they’re the only group that brings together the field experience, the research experience and the technical understanding as well as a great product.”

About his work with EDI, he added: “Being in a position where you don’t have to compromise is a great situation to be in.”

EDI doesn’t just collect data, or help its clients to do so. What Coville and others appreciate is that the company’s staff is dominated not by computer programmers but by researchers who know the local environment and are able to discuss survey design and the best way to collect the desired data.

“Designing in that way is very different to what we’re used to,” said Andrew Mude, an economist with the International Livestock Research Institute, “and it has allowed us to create more effective questionnaires, looking at the sequencing of questions and dramatically increasing our efficiency, turnaround speed and cleanliness of the data.”

Mude has been working with Surveybe for more than two years on an extensive annual survey of 925 households in Kenya that is part of a livestock insurance program. Since then, he said, ILRI’s feedback has routinely been integrated into the software and related services.

To realize the benefit of using a survey software like Surveybe, imagine a common scenario across the developing world: An interviewer enters a home, ready to spend a few hours or more to take note of the family’s size and structure, its eating habits and many other issues. She notes the number of children – until hours later, a toddler runs in who has so far been unaccounted for. If the survey is being conducted with pen and paper, making a note may be simple enough – although inputting all collected data later may take days or even weeks. Backtracking within survey software can be cumbersome, if it isn’t impossible. The interviewer asks about food consumption: How many bananas were consumed by your household last week? The answer is recorded as “two bunches” – vague and unquantifiable; how big is a bunch? Eventually, the interviewer leaves and spends hours downloading and relabeling survey questions and answers. Weeks after she sends them to a research coordinator, a note arrives: A few answers were missed and some of her research needs to be dismissed or redone, costing precious time and money.

Few survey firms have been able to avoid these types of situations – in fact, EDI, with its Surveybe software, may be the most successful. To gain a more accurate recording of quantity, the respondent is shown an image on screen with different banana bunch sizes contrasted with common, everyday items such as a bike and plastic chair. The respondent is then able to select the relevant size, vastly improving the quality and accuracy of the collected consumption data. The majority of data cleaning is done before a researcher leaves the home of a client, through a number of checks that are easily input in advance and run automatically when prompted. Researchers are able to easily move forward and backward within a survey. Data is automatically labeled once it is exported later on – a more efficient and accurate way of collecting data.

Feedback from team leaders who run data collection and evaluation projects in Tanzania is incorporated into Surveybe’s weekly software development meetings, helping to optimize a product that, according to its creators, makes experienced researchers “jump around in joy” when they learn about functionalities that are unusually well-tailored toward their needs. Surveybe’s imminent release of a copy-and-paste functionality, which enables several people to work on the design of separate sections of the same questionnaire simultaneously, has been guided in part by user feedback.

In November, EDI introduced a new pricing structure to make its services, and the use of Surveybe, more affordable and predictable. For a simple fee, clients can now license the software and use it in-house, or hire EDI to conduct research and provide other services. In either case, the twin companies provide technical assistance whenever needed – which tends to be minimal, Broadbent said.

“The software is designed to have a low technical barrier of entry so people without computer programmer skills can use it,” she explained. “It means they can start engaging with us and then roll it out immediately in their organization – or, of course, have us get more involved in the actual research.”

EDI’s business has taken off since 2002, when it was founded in Bukoba, Tanzania, a town on the western shore of Lake Victoria where its headquarters is located to this day – an illustration of the research firm’s commitment to the grassroots. Its staff, up to 150 people at any given time, now handles multimillion dollar projects. Clients include the Clinton Health Access Initiative, Millennium Challenge Corp., the University of Oxford and various national government and statistical agencies.

Part of EDI’s appeal lies in the fact that it’s locally run and provides a service that reaches the highest international standards, EDI Research Director Joachim De Weerdt suggested.

For its staff, EDI represents an opportunity to travel, learn and assume leadership positions, said Respichius Deogratius Mitti, one of the company’s research managers. Junior staff members often advance through the ranks, leave to finish studies, and then return to supervise or coordinate research, he added.

EDI and its partners at Surveybe are proud of their reputation of being ahead of the curve – and they continue to innovate. Although their focus has traditionally been on socioeconomic data, they’re constantly expanding their services to cover new areas such as biomedical testing of blood and lung functions, for instance.

Surveybe has been used in 25 countries around the globe, and EDI is ready to take its expertise across borders, too.

“We want to partner with larger U.S. and U.K. consultancies, research firms or donors who are looking to establish bases in developing countries,” Broadbent told Devex. “We want to take our model and help other organizations grow as well.”

In an era where aid groups are expected to go local and donors are basing their funding decisions on hard evidence, the future for EDI’s approach to data collection appears to be bright.

Find out more about Economic Development Initiatives and Surveybe.

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