The Unusual Suspects - Four often ignored things that can make or break data collection
It was early morning, around 6 am, and pouring in Pune. We met outside our office and were waiting for one of the team members. We were all huddled under an umbrella, standing outside the car. Perhaps, it was the weather, or maybe it was the excitement of what we were doing. That day we went to Rajgurunagar to stay for a week, at a guesthouse generously provided to us by Chaitanya Foundation. Chaitanya Foundation works with women self-help groups (SHGs) and provides support around all kinds of problems, from financial planning to family counselling.
We, on the other hand, were working to ensure a conducive educational environment for children. Trying to help build public education systems which refuse to let them down. What we were doing was trying to understand the educational landscape of an entire block in Pune district. Being in Rajgurunagar allowed for easier access to tribal villages such as Chikhalgaon, Naiphad and Bhomale, which were in the furthest parts of the taluka. The survey we conducted was part of a bigger study. The study was to undertake a needs analysis and a systems diagnosis of the Khed taluka.
We collected data in 4 different ways - paper-pencil surveys, focused group discussions, in-person interviews and detailed case studies. The study was envisioned in April 2019 and had a timeline cut out till September 2019. The principal objective was to enable decision-makers in the government and civil society organisations to make informed, evidence-based investments in the education sector in Khed. For this purpose, the study aimed to describe the education landscape in Khed. Furthermore, it seeks to understand the needs from the perspective of its key stakeholders - government, community and civil society organisations - and evaluate the systems that govern the quality of education in the taluka.
Khed is a taluka in the Pune district of Maharashtra comprising of 186 villages and 6 census towns. With a population of 4.5 lakhs, the taluka comprises of forest areas, dams, villages and census towns. There are well connected rural areas and census towns along the three highways that pass through the district, and there are remote areas, with 70-90% of ST population, further away from the main roads.
Process and learnings
The data collection for the Khed taluka was conducted in July. We spent one month on the ground, in 3 teams of two, to collect survey data and qualitative data (Case studies and FGDs). The team included 3 interns for whom it was the first time working in-field, 1 intern who had prior, but limited, work experience and two LFE employees.
We started the process by creating a list of themes that we wanted to explore. We generated the list using extensive secondary literature review, deep-diving into the education dialogue that has come before us. Through the surveys, we wanted to look at the effect of these themes, such as access to credit and parent's education, on student learning. Using the themes, we created survey tools which would help us capture people's perception as accurately as possible. We piloted in Amboli village, with 6 students, 4 parents and 5 teachers. Conducting the pilot in such a way, led to the first learning in the project.
Piloting the survey with a small sample gave us a misrepresentative understanding of how the survey would be interpreted. Meeting parents in the school did not give us a clear picture of the logistical problem that we would face in the field later on. We ran into problems when we realised that most of the parents in the village went to work in companies and fields and that their work time coincided with ours. Thus, it was challenging to find willing parents to give us their time and talk to us about the status of education in their village.
Thus, we learnt that for a robust study, one must undertake an equally robust pilot, one which is representative of the actual research. Doing so would mean targeting the same number of respondents in each location, covering areas representative of the sample (in our case urban, rural and tribal) and talking to a significant number of people.
Post the pilot, we started our data collection. Every morning, unlike today, we would start our day at 8, meet at the office and take a cab to the schools that we had selected for the survey. We would strategically choose the schools so that they fall in the same general area so that the teams could be dropped one by one and we save some money. (money which we would later utilise for accessing single, remote locations which do not fall on common routes with other sites).
During the initial weeks of data collection, the team exhibited a high level of morale. The incredibly dedicated team of 6 would meet sharp at 8 am, and be in schools by 10 am, returning to Pune by 7 pm. Putting in 10-11 hour days, 4 days a week would take a toll on anyone, but the grit that everyone exhibited was astounding. Every day, we would reflect on what we saw in the day, and the team enjoyed seeing and learning new things every day. The group was vocal about their learnings and their challenges, but something remained unsaid, and it would bring us our next big learning.
During the third week of data collection, one of our most resilient interns said that she felt extremely demotivated. The constant rejection that they were facing due to the presence of extreme amounts of red tape made it difficult for some of them to keep the motivation up. For instance, the headmasters would, at times, refuse to cooperate, despite the proper permissions in place or the head of departments would not grant permissions because the specific schools in the area fall outside their jurisdiction. In such cases, the team would feel dejected and hurt. This built over time, raising self-doubt, in turn making it difficult to stay positive and motivated.
Thus, we understood that it is necessary to reflect on how the experience felt, and not only on what one accomplished. Reflecting and vocalising on personal challenges is necessary to anticipate future pitfalls, and prepare the team to support each other through those pitfalls. In the absence of awareness of such challenges, it becomes difficult to keep motivation up and ensure an environment conducive for learning.
Among other things that we saw, the lack of clean toilets was a problem. Monsoons and lack of proper rainwear was a problem. Given that the human body works on food, lack of food joints was a problem. Anticipating such logistical issues is a necessary aspect of designing any study, and must form an important part of the pilot. After four weeks of gruelling work, the data collection concluded, and we bid adieu to our dear interns. Before we parted ways, we said goodbyes formally - otherwise known as "exit conversations". And that is when we had our last big learning in the project.
Conversation after conversation, we heard that the interns felt that the entire experience was worth it because they had such explicit learnings that they were taking away. They could articulate the skills that they learnt, the challenges that they faced and the feelings that they felt throughout the process. They could see their growth explicitly through their reflection notes. And this growth partly fuelled the drive to put in long hours week after week without giving up. It is crucial to orient the team and consistently support the team through the disappointment and rejection that one faces on the field. Presence of a nurturing and a supportive environment, in such cases, builds investment and allows the team to rise and have breakthroughs.
For some, it was a time when they began to explore who they are as people; for some, it was a time to dive deeper into what they knew about themselves. Thus, we learnt that it is necessary to keep learning of people at the centre (along with the work). To keep learning at the same level as the work that is coming in helps people feel motivated. It helps them feel cared for and as ends in themselves. Thus, the month-long process was filled with experiences that helped us understand the nuances of data collection slightly better and will help us design our future endeavours better.
The author Anirudh Agarwal is an Associate with the Research, Monitoring & Evaluation vertical at Leadership For Equity. Anirudh holds a Masters degree in education from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences and has previously worked with Teach For India and The Akanksha Foundation. He can be reached through email at firstname.lastname@example.org