by UNHCR’s Global Data Service, Innovation Service and Global Tri-Cluster Group
Collecting and using operational data on refugees, stateless populations, and others who have been forcibly displaced is an essential tool for UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, and partners to be able to provide protection, assistance and solutions to those who have been forced to flee, even during a global pandemic.
However, the health risks and government measures introduced by COVID-19 have severely limited traditional mechanisms for primary data collection, such as visiting households, doing direct observation and conducting focus group discussions.
In order to continue generating information to support the delivery of life-saving assistance, humanitarian workers are pivoting to remote methodologies for data collection – such as telephone surveys, self-directed surveys and remote key informant interviews – and are doing more secondary data analysis. Remote data collection is not only a way for UNHCR and partners to continue their work during COVID-19 but also a way to ensure the safety of the people we serve and of our frontline staff.
To help with this new challenge, UNHCR presents here a set of challenges and recommendations about the impact of COVID-19 on data activities, and how to minimize the disruption, mitigate risk and reduce bias when acquiring data.
As emphasized through an internal survey carried out by UNHCR, a shift towards remote approaches to primary data collection has brought on a number of complexities and challenges.
Firstly, remote data collection relies heavily on the use of telecommunications and digital tools, such as phone calls, online surveys, virtual communication tools (SMS, WhatsApp, Signal, etc.) and satellite imagery. However, lack of connectivity remains a key issue for many operations looking to leverage remote channels for the collection of information. Not only does this impact UNHCR operations and their staff, but also the communities themselves who in many contexts face barriers to connectivity. This is something that can manifest in many different ways: lack of legal access to SIM cards, lack of availability of devices, lack of infrastructure, differing levels of digital literacy, lack of affordability or low digital access by vulnerable groups, such as the elderly or people with disabilities.
Secondly, the rapidity with which humanitarian workers have had to adapt to new ways of working also means that we do not always have a good understanding of the preferred communication channels of the community members we are trying to reach. We might use the ones that are most readily at hand, but these might not always be the preferred and most secure channels, or inspire the level of trust and collaboration that is needed.
Thirdly, challenges with the remote supervision of data collection activities will directly impact the ability to quality control the information collected. Additional time must be invested to verify the data before it is used, to ensure it is sufficiently reliable and accurate.
Finally, since there are fewer methods available for data collection, the same may be used over and over, leading to survey fatigue amongst those individuals consulted. Survey fatigue can also be the direct consequence of a lack of interagency coordination, as the same data is collected from the same people. In the context of COVID-19, additional efforts are necessary to ensure that data activities are well coordinated, and that information is being shared effectively and responsibly.
Recommendations and opportunities
Secondary data reviews and “Big Data”
To minimize survey fatigue but also to help maximise the value of available data, UNHCR recommends relying more on secondary data review (SDR), i.e. the process of identifying and assessing data that was collected by someone else for another purpose to determine if it can be used to meet your information needs. Humanitarian and development agencies have an ethical responsibility to safely share (non-personal) data with each other safely in order to support the effective re-use of what has already been collected, especially in the context of COVID-19.
To minimize survey fatigue but also to help maximise the value of available data, UNHCR recommends relying more on secondary data review (SDR).
Some secondary data is “Big Data”, i.e. unstructured and high-volume data. Although big data can present a number of challenges relating to the way it’s been collected (e.g. reliability, bias, issues of representativeness), the way it can be analyzed (e.g. its ability to generate meaningful insights) and the lack of standard analytical frameworks, it can also provide some good insights when the usual methods are not available due to physical distancing.
Other solutions to analyze big data such as speech-to-text technology, text analytics, the safe use of satellite imagery for remote sensing and harnessing social media for analysis all provide a number of opportunities. Text analytics, also known as text mining or natural language processing, allows operations to reuse existing unstructured data in websites, reports, surveys, legal documentation, social media, media monitoring, etc. and to turn it into structured data that can be used for analysis. A number of tools are made available to support work with structured and unstructured data, such as the DEEP platform, a humanitarian tool for secondary data analysis. DEEP offers humanitarians working on a joint project the opportunity to customize analytical frameworks to guide data collection and analysis, and to tag information contained in large amounts of documents from different sources.
In order to improve interagency coordination for data collection and to pool capacity for data analysis in times of COVID-19, the creation of GIMAC (The Global Information Management, Assessment and Analysis Cell), was proposed jointly by several United Nations agencies and international NGO partners. As a multi-stakeholder humanitarian initiative, GIMAC aims to coordinate, structure, collate, manage and analyze COVID-19 related information, and to provide technical support and services to prioritized countries and global decision-makers related to the humanitarian impact of COVID-19. GIMAC is a great resource for country operations, which can use the Cell’s support for secondary data reviews and primary data collection to enable evidence-based decision-making.
GIMAC is a great resource for country operations, which can use the Cell’s support for secondary data reviews and primary data collection to enable evidence-based decision-making.
Overcoming connectivity challenges and engaging communities
When secondary data is not sufficient to meet the information needs, primary data collection may still be required. In these cases, there are many ways to continue engaging with communities, even in times of physical distancing and where there is a lack of connectivity.
Firstly, consult the communities to assess levels of connectivity and to gain a better understanding of the appropriate channels of communication. This can be done by either leveraging existing information and communication needs assessments or undertaking new ones when required. Choosing the most appropriate communication channel however shouldn’t only be based on the preference of the individuals consulted but should also be selected based on how well they are able to respect their privacy and ensure the safety and confidentiality of the information that will be shared.
There are many ways to continue engaging with communities, even in times of physical distancing and where there is a lack of connectivity.
Note that any such assessment should be preceded by research to understand the media and telecommunications landscape in a given situation, including research on national legislations that may affect individuals access to services and their right to privacy and data protection. The media landscape can be evaluated by engaging with local Mobile Network Operators and Telecommunications Regulator, checking third party sources for data on mobile coverage, or by using secure tools that can support manual mapping.
Secondly, you could take action to enhance digital access and inclusion. These actions could involve, for example, equipping key interlocutors with devices, data or power, or supporting specific groups such as people with disabilities (e.g. by providing devices), women or the elderly. Make sure, of course, that these interventions are done in a way that respects physical distancing measures! Humanitarian workers also have a role to play in advocating and working together with Mobile Network Operators and Telecommunications regulators to enhance digital access for refugees and other populations of concern to UNHCR.
Finally, remember that you can always use different methodologies to collect information. Blending both online and offline approaches and leveraging alternate channels to gather information (e.g. radio call-in, two-way SMS) can sometimes provide the best results where connectivity is low and/ or survey fatigue high. The most important is to make sure that the methods you use are both safe in your context, for the individuals consulted and appropriate to meet your information needs.
Blending both online and offline approaches and leveraging alternate channels to gather information (e.g. radio call in, two-way SMS) can sometimes provide the best results where connectivity is low and/ or survey fatigue high.
The situation brought on by COVID-19 is unlike anything we’ve experienced before. In the age of a “new normal”, it is up to each and every one of us to make the most of the data and tools that are already available in our organization and to find new innovative ways of using them to pursue our work. In a world of physical distancing, we suggest keeping the following in mind when crafting a strategy for remote data collection:
- Challenge your assumptions. Always challenge existing assumptions about what is required to build meaningful humanitarian outcomes. Why is data needed and for what purpose?
- Consider existing mechanisms for community engagement, for instance, contact centres, social media channels, or two-way SMS systems. Rather than building new channels, leverage what already exists within your organization and in the wider humanitarian community.
- Avoiding Survey Fatigue. Make sure to coordinate your data activities to avoid duplication of efforts, and put in place arrangements for effective, safe and purposeful data sharing. Do not “spam” your surveys: limit the questions to the minimum that is required for your purpose, and only ask the question if the answer is not already available elsewhere.
- Do no harm. Ensure that all data collection activities, be they primary data collection or secondary data review, are consistent with responsible, ethical, principled and human-rights based approaches to data management in humanitarian contexts.
The above ideas were presented during a webinar for UNHCR and partner staff working in data related functions. The webinar was hosted by UNHCR’s Global Data Service, Innovation Service and Global Tri-Cluster Group on 24 June 2020. A package including the recording of the webinar, the presentation and an extensive list of resources was provided to participants. If you’d like to receive the package or more information, please send us a comment in the form below.