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The perks of remote documentation

By Sairana Ahsan | May 26, 2020  | Researcher Experience COVID-19

In the latest in our series of blog posts from researchers about the effects the COVID-19 pandemic is having on their research, Sairana Ahsan, a public health professional in Bangladesh, discusses the challenges of remote data collection.

Shubho Shondhya (Good evening in Bengali)!

I, Sairana Ahsan, am writing from my desk at home as we dive into the 70th day of work from home modality since 26th March 2020. I am a public health professional, with a keen interest in Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights, gender, food security and health systems in Bangladesh. My specialty is in qualitative data collection, research methods and documenting; I am currently the reporting and documentation lead in an INGO at Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh.

I usually travel to programme areas and talk to people in person to take in-depth interviews for a deeper understanding of the questions involved to collect sufficient data for research, monitoring, collecting stories and much more. During this ongoing COVID-19 crisis, the data collection method has changed to remote documentation, which involves a phone interview with consented participants. In my last one month’s journey of remote documentation, I have encountered many ups and downs that taught me numerous lessons.

The essence of in-person data collection lies in the observation power of the researcher.  My team and I usually go to the field one or two days before the data collection to get familiarised with the community  culture. We select possible participants by talking to the locals and community leaders, which usually involves obtaining a no objection letter from local law enforcement agencies. The preparation of the field is the first step before we embark on our data collection journey. The in-depth interviews, focused group discussions, and key informant interviews follow suit in the subsequent days. Remote data collection through phone interviews is quite challenging for this particular step. When we are fixing appointments and calling the participants, we are only able to convey our greetings and professional information. The person on the other side of the phone cannot see our faces, and neither can we; it is important to mention that most of the participants do not own a smartphone for video calls as most of them are insolvent.

The second step is the data collection. When we collect data in-person, we also have the chance to observe the participants’ body language, facial expressions, and their surrounding area. These contribute to the answers much more than the simple interviews. The phone interviews have rendered this quite impossible to observe. In my experience with phone interviews, I observed the tone of their voice as much as possible to understand the emotions behind their answers as I collect and connect stories from the participants. As a qualitative researcher and a story hunter, I have learned from my mentor that these small details add value to the overall interview. I have written many stories on the lives of adolescent girls living in urban slums of Bangladesh in my previous workplace and found that context is very important to construct stories about human lives. I have been more cautious about reading the tone of the voices of the participants, which has helped me to practice my listening skills all the more.

The upside of remote data collection is completing more interviews in a day, since the movement is restricted, so we can avoid the physical exhaustion. This also has financial benefits as overhead expenditure is minimised.

The COVID- 19 pandemic has taught me to work around the limited resources to obtain data for documenting the lived experiences of the people in programme areas through in-depth interviews via phone calls. This information is helping impoverished families in rural areas to battle this pandemic as the donors have arranged additional support for them. 

Sairana Ahsan is on LinkedIn and ORCID.

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