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The anatomy of a mobile phone survey: Lessons from the Listening to Africa project

Alvin Etang Ndip's picture
Also available in: Français
© Sven Torfinn / Panos Pictures. Used with the permission of Sven Torfinn / Panos Pictures. Further permission required for reuse.  

Madagascar is facing a deteriorating food security situation. In a survey conducted in July 2014, 33% of the respondents said they worried about not having enough food in a given seven-day span. However, in subsequent surveys this number increased to 48% in January 2015 and to 50% by September 2015.
 
Now what’s unique about this situation is that unlike a traditional household survey, which is costly and time consuming, these were conducted through mobile phones so that the government could get frequent updates from the ground to help tailor its policy responses on the fly. Periodic monitoring of people’s well-being is something that governments want to do more of.
 
In Madagascar, we were able to provide these results based on a sample of 2,000 rural and urban households. As you would imagine, there are many challenges in implementing a representative mobile phone survey. For example, some households had access to a mobile phone network but did not actually own mobile phones—particularly the poorest. To overcome this, we handed out mobile phones to all selected households regardless of whether they owned a mobile phone. And with frequent power cuts, we knew that many would not be able to participate in the phone survey because their phones could be out of power. So we provided small solar chargers to allow these households to charge their phones and receive follow-up calls.
 
This was possible because of a project called Listening to Africa (L2A), which pilots the use of mobile phones to monitor citizens’ well-being in six countries. These surveys are based on their respective national household surveys and complements them by collecting data at regular intervals.  In addition to the six African countries, World Bank teams are also working (or have worked) on mobile phone surveys in other parts of the world including Ghana, Tajikistan, Peru, and Honduras.
 
Given that the world is going increasingly mobile and there is a strong appetite for data collection through mobile phones among the development community, we have encapsulated our experiences and lessons learned from about three years of running the L2A project into a handbook. Mobile Phone Panel Surveys in Developing Countries: A Practical Guide for Microdata Collection articulates the rationale for mobile phone panel surveys, and discusses how to design and implement a representative mobile phone panel survey. It also describes the decisions and steps to be taken in setting up a call center for a mobile phone panel survey, and discusses elements of a typical mobile phone survey.
 
The book also deals with the challenges associated with designing and implementing high frequency representative mobile phone surveys. For example, how do you ensure that the data collected are of good quality? How do you deal with the risk of attrition and non-response, which is not as high in face-to-face surveys? We faced some of these challenges while testing this approach in the survey countries. We also know that many researchers will be facing similar challenges so we have tried to propose ways to avoid some pitfalls and lessen the risks, along with a few suggestions for assuring data quality.
 
The book also covers data management and contains a synopsis of key budget items for conducting such surveys, including detailed examples of budgets for some of our projects.
 
As the World Bank vice president for Africa, Makhtar Diop, aptly wrote in the book’s foreword, “the mobile revolution is changing the way we work. For the better.” We are just scratching the surface in terms of harnessing the power of mobile phone surveys.
 
Going back to the Madagascar example from above, I hope that in the not too distant future we can pair mobile phone surveys with early warning systems that help to identify the onset of food crises, so that we are better able to mount and monitor a timely and effective response. Or we could use this kind of combination to respond to other types of crises, like getting an alert about the emergence of a disease such as Ebola before it becomes an epidemic. We could also use mobile phone surveys to monitor access to and quality of healthcare services.
 
These are certainly interesting times for researchers and statisticians. Stay tuned for more updates from the field as we continue to implement the L2A project. If you have ideas on areas where you think mobile phone surveys could enhance existing processes, feel free to share them in the comments section below.