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Accelerating Use of Remote Surveys During the Covid-19 Pandemic

Caleb Ballou — Former Principal, Innovative Finance, The Rockefeller Foundation
Sasha Dichter — Co-Founder, 60 Decibels
Venu Aggarwal — Associate Director, Acumen

As the world reels from the effects of Covid-19 and widespread lockdowns, we collectively lack some of the basic information needed to navigate this crisis. Just as we are struggling with limited testing that obscures our understanding of the scale of Covid-19, we also are unable to answer basic questions about the human impacts – health, financial, and social – of this new reality.

This challenge is not a new one, but it is one that now is much more visible. Governments, policymakers, donors, and investors are working hard to make data-driven decisions and adapt their strategies in response to this pandemic. And yet, with virtually all in-person research suspended, the voices of the 3.5 billion people who can’t easily be reached by email and through the web are being systematically omitted from our view of day-to-day reality.

For example: what do we really know about the impacts of Covid-19 on workers who have lost their jobs and are traveling on foot to return to their home villages in India; on farmers who are struggling to buy essential inputs for their crops before the upcoming rains; or on homeless communities suffering from possible virus outbreaks in shelters in the U.S.? Without an ability to solicit direct feedback from these populations, our attempts to improve their circumstances may lack a nuanced understanding of the complex on-the-ground realities and can be misguided or incomplete in their approach.

Listening to those who matter, when it matters most

The Rockefeller Foundation is continually experimenting with ways to measure impact that are inclusive, responsive, and rigorous. One of the methods in our impact measurement toolkit is 60 Decibels’ Lean Data approach, which is optimized for nimbleness, flexibility, and remote deployment through the use of voice surveys over mobile phones.

We believe that in order to maximize its effectiveness, the research and evaluation community must adapt to the current reality by leveraging remote tools to measure the impact of Covid-19 on the world’s most vulnerable populations.

Luckily, our peers are stepping up to provide resources and strategies for conducting phone surveys in a rigorous and responsible way. Mathematica and J-PAL/Innovations for Poverty Action, for example, offer valuable expertise and actionable frameworks for transitioning from in-person to telephone interviews. Even as it transforms the landscape for in-person research, the Covid-19 pandemic also presents an opportunity to hone new approaches to data collection.

The Rockefeller Foundation’s recent project with 60 Decibels serves as one example of the power of remote mobile surveys, their potential to broaden perspective, and their ability to generate insights.

We worked with Omnivore, a Mumbai-based venture capital firm and Rockefeller Foundation investee, to assess social impact and client experience for two of their portfolio companies, DeHaat and Fasal. DeHaat gives farmers improved access to information on farm inputs, crop advisories, and market linkages through a technology-enabled platform, while Fasal uses in-field sensors and a smartphone application to deliver actionable farming information in real-time.

Using the 60 Decibels approach, we learned that 72% of DeHaat’s farmer customers live below the $3.20/day poverty line (a percentage that is comparable to the Indian average), and that two-thirds of customers believe that their production, revenue, and overall quality of life improved because of DeHaat’s services. Fasal’s customers, who are larger commercial farmers and businesses, indicated that they appreciate the accuracy and quality of Fasal’s data, but also cited specific feature and connectivity improvements that could improve the product’s overall value—feedback the Fasal team has already integrated into their product development cycle. The graphic below is an example of the insights generated by the 60 Decibels approach.

Have Farming Practices Changed?

We heard about three types of improvements when farmers were asked to describe how working with Fasal had changed the way they farm.

  • 80%

    of farmers report at least some improvements in farming practices due to Fasal

  • 24%

    says their way of farming has “very much improved”

  • 100%

    who have reported improvements in their way of farming have also reported reductions in money spent on crop management

Top Three Self-Reported Improvements

Better farming techniques around irrigation and pest management (55%)
“I understand water and drip techniques better now. This saves costs.”

Useful information around when, how, and how much to irrigate and/or spray pesticides (48%)
“I am always prepared to prevent situations – be it disease infect, irrigation, pest control.”

Easily available information and alerts on mobile app (30%)
“The alerts help to know what is happening. I also have a better idea of where I am spending money.”

The Fasal and DeHaat projects demonstrate how remote surveys like the 60 Decibels approach can quickly generate high quality, customer-level social impact data, and the power of this data to drive superior outcomes for the companies and their customers.

Implications for the Field

The Rockefeller Foundation has both witnessed and supported the advent of alternative methods of social impact data collection—both the kind of customer-level data that 60 Decibels collects, and the “big data” at the core of initiatives like – with enthusiasm. But the Covid-19 pandemic underscores the importance and value of these methods with new and convincing force. Remote data collection is inherently resilient and can be especially responsive in times of crisis. The Foundation’s experience alone presents a compelling body of evidence, including through our work with AtlasAI and the United Nations Global Pulse, that these alternative approaches can produce high-quality data with resilience, accuracy, and efficiency, and at a fraction of the cost of traditional methods.

While we cannot know how long the Covid-19 pandemic will last, it’s clear that the restrictions imposed by this crisis will push us to adapt and innovate in how we gather information. Remote data collection, previously at the margins of global impact measurement and evaluation, will become an indispensable tool – during lockdowns and beyond.

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