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Community Contribution

Using Digital Survey Tools to Listen to Women

Aug 25, 2021
Kalkidan Lakew and Eric Kaduru

In the COVID-19 context, where face-to-face surveys are no longer a safe option, digital surveys offer a timely and effective solution. At CARE, we've used mobile surveys, developed new digital qualitative data collection tools, and applied Interactive Voice Recording (IVR), which is a remote survey and messaging mechanism that enables us to poll community members, particularly women, and share critical messages about COVID-19, gender, and safety issues during the pandemic. Through CARE's Women Respond Initiative, we have targeted communities, mostly women, to listen to their experiences in the COVID-19 context.


Below are some of our key learnings and tips to better reach out to communities, particularly women, based on experience in Malawi, Tanzania, Nigeria, Burundi, and Uganda.

  1. Be clear about your survey goals: You can’t cover long questions in a digital survey, so be very clear and specific on what is important for your work and who you are targeting. Clarity on your survey goal can help you define what platform to use, how to reach out to your target group, and when and how to execute the survey. For example, if you are trying to understand what women need in low bandwidth contexts, voice or SMS methods are more likely to be useful than online surveys.
  2. Identify a platform that works for your context: With growing digital service providers, the good news is you have options, but not all of them are a good fit. CARE partnered with Viamo to use interactive voice response in some places, and SMS surveys in others. CARE also developed two innovative digital tools for qualitative data collection called Fatima and Voice App, which allow researchers to conduct, tag, and analyze key informant interviews over the phone and in-person (respectively) in order to more efficiently assess community needs and adapt programs more quickly.  These can work in high- and low-connectivity areas and are free for the respondents. When you are working with women, you need to put them at the center – keep asking if this works for them. Do they own a phone, can they easily follow the instructions, do they have the safety and space to respond? There is no perfect solution for this; you need to be aware of your context and your survey target population when choosing a platform.
  3. Keep your survey short and pretest your survey: Women take time from their busy day to respond to your survey; make sure the survey is not another burden. Unlike a face-to-face survey, it is easier for respondents to hang up or drop off from a digital and phone survey. It is important to keep your survey under 15 minutes and between 7 to 10 questions. If your survey is multiple-choice, keep your list of choices limited. From our experience, we have learned to keep our list of options precise, and we try to keep it between six to eight options. Don’t just develop a survey and run with it – test it with selected colleagues and community members and get feedback. Is it clear, it is too long, how can we improve it, etc.? You might be in a hurry to launch your survey, but pretesting—including translation—is not a task you would want to skip.
  4. Check your database: Often women don’t own their phones; what we have learned in our surveys is some savings group members registered the same phone number multiple times. The other critical issue is when a woman registered a phone number owned by her husband or ‘man of the household,’ work with your team and your community agents to double-check phone numbers. Ask respondents ahead of time if they have alternative numbers they want to use or set up a system to ensure you are speaking to the intended person at a convenient and safe time, such as setting up a code when scheduling.
  5. Train, sensitize, and check respondent preferences: Train your staff, partners, and data collectors. Women community leaders are critical in your sensitization process. They will reach out to groups and communities to explain the objective of the survey, share their experience and when to expect calls. In our survey in Nigeria, Burundi, Tanzania, Malawi, and Uganda, community agents were vital in informing women about the survey. In Uganda and Tanzania, our team called respondents ahead of the survey, explained the survey process and objective, and asked them if they want to receive a survey. In Burundi, a short SMS survey was pushed before the actual survey to ask if respondents want to receive a survey and participate in the survey.For Fatima, phone calls were made in advance to test phone numbers, explain the research, and (if they choose to participate) schedule a follow-up call for interviewing.
  6. Prioritize participants safety and consent: Participants' consent is a must; you need to ensure you provide an adequate explanation of the objective of the survey and explain their rights as participants. Participants can choose not to participate in the survey initially, but even for participants who consented at the beginning, the option to opt-out at any point of the survey must be ensured. Remote surveys are impossible to ensure the respondent's surroundings and safety, but you can consider a few things to make the situation safe. We give people a chance to hang up and call back free of charge and continue where they left off. At the beginning of all phone surveys, we asked if respondents are alone. We also avoid asking sensitive questions over digital or phone surveys. For instance, questions focusing on Gender-Based Violence (GBV) are not included in our digital and phone surveys. Also at the end of an interview using Fatima, respondents will also have the opportunity to reconfirm consent on all or select parts of what was shared. 
  7. You need time – be patient but also quick to adopt: If you have a short deadline, a phone survey might be more effective in terms of response rate than a digital survey. In our experience, respondents were more keen and likely to respond to a direct call from our staff, partners, and consultants than completing a digital survey. We received great response rates in Burundi, Tanzania, and Uganda, ranging from 30% to 60% because of detailed planning and intense sensitization. In our experience in Nigeria, where we had a 10% response rate to our digital survey, we switched to a phone survey, and we our response rate became 100%. To increase responsiveness to digital surveys, we often tried to push the survey multiple time and call respondents to prompt response. Respondents, particularly women, told us that receiving multiple messages per day doesn't encourage them to respond. Sending a survey at the right time is more effective than sending it often, so check their preferred time and willingness to receive a survey – this makes a difference in response rate.
  8. Report Back to the Women and Community: Once you have the data, don’t forget about the women. Share the learnings and findings with them to support their own actions. We have seen positive reactions from women who are part of the sharing process and lead the community dissemination. They have told us that the information enabled them to understand the COVID-19 context, and they are becoming leaders in their community and group by sharing learnings. Make sure your survey process is not extractive from the women and community – they want to be part of the process and know the learnings, so go back and share. This is also an opportunity for you and your team to hear more from the women and continue building trust, strengthening relationships and improving your survey process. 


The above learnings and tips do not cover all the issues one needs to consider in launching a digital survey that best targets and reaches out to women. As we continue to gather learnings, we will include additional tips.