Using Technology to Collect Data

On Wednesday, January 27, President Obama gave his State of the Union Address. Upon completion, the pollsters and pundants were in usual form. If you happened to watch the post-address discussion on CNN, you probably saw John King provide the latest Twitter results. That’s right. Polling using Twitter. John King provided us another example of how technology is aiding us in collecting survey data. Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn along with SurveyMonkey, SurveyPro, Metrics-that-Matter and many other technologies provide an array of opportunity to collect data from colleagues, customers, and the like. While the program evaluation community has embraced technology to make data collection more convenient, less expensive, and more interactive, we often have such a reliance on it, that we fail to realize the potential error in the results that can surface from depending solely on technology. Types of error most immediately at risk are coverage error and non-response error. Coverage Error Coverage error occurs when we collect data and report results only from a group of respondents who have access to the delivery mode we employ. While admittedly, John King’s results were not representative of the country at large, consider some of the people he missed: Non-Response Error Non-response error occurs when people do not respond to a survey. With a low response rate it becomes difficult to draw conclusions with the survey results. People fail to respond to surveys for a variety of reasons, including (but not limited to): In order to take advantage of what technology has to offer in terms of data collection and mitigate coverage and non-response error, consider the following steps taken from the work of Don Dillman (2009) and other experts of survey research. 1. Identify your primary mode of data collection for a given survey project. You may choose technology as your primary mode. If so, then steps 2-5 below will use technology. If you choose paper-based or telephone surveys as your primary mode of data collection, you will use whichever one of those to complete the following steps. 2. Provide pre-notice prior to administering the survey. This communication will come in the form of email, if you plan to email your survey; a letter or memorandum if you plan to use paper-based survey; or a brief telephone call if you plan to use telephone as your primary method of data collection. The purpose of the pre-notice is to advise potential respondents of the importance of the survey. In addition, the pre-notice will explain to them when they will receive the survey, what they can expect in terms of time commitment, completion timeline, planned use of the data, and any incentives you are willing to offer for survey completion. 3. Administer the survey. Three days after the pre-notice has been distributed, send the survey. As part of the survey instructions, explain again the importance of survey, time commitment, completion timeline, planned use of the data, and incentives. 4. Administer the survey a second time. After a week or two, administer the survey a second time using, again, your primary mode of delivery. This second distribution serves as a reminder and makes it convenient for the audience by providing the entire survey with instructions. 5. Send a follow-up reminder. By now, you should have received a large number of surveys. But there are still a few people who need another reminder. So, using your primary mode of delivery, send a reminder to those who have not yet responded. 6. Administer the survey a third time — using a different delivery method. This last contact with potential respondents is your opportunity to influence people to respond by attacking the issue from another position. This time, change your delivery method. If your previous contacts have been electronic, send potential respondents a paper-based survey or place a call to them. By changing the delivery method, you give people who have not had access to (or who chose not to access) your survey opportunity to respond. * * * * Reference Dillman, D. A., Smyth, J. D., and Christian, L. M. (2009). Internet, Mail, and Mixed-Mode Surveys: The Tailored Design Method, 3rd edition. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons. Additional Resources Alreck, P. L. and Settle, R. B. (1995). The Survey Research Handbook, 2nd edition. New York: McGraw-Hill Fink, A. (2002) Series Editor. The Survey Kit 2nd edition. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications. Trochim, W. M. The Research Methods Knowledge Base, 2nd Edition. Internet WWW page, at URL: (version current as of October 20, 2006).

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