Qualitative researchers gain critical insights about a given research question based on interactions with people, observation, and participation in the target community. For us, the COVID-19 lock downs meant we had to adapt the way we collected data.
In 2020, we were conducting research on social protection for displaced Venezuelans, internally displaced populations (IDPs), and host community members in Colombia, with funding from the Building the Evidence on Forced Displacement partnership and as part of a global study on social protection for displaced populations. The School of Government at Universidad de los Andes conducted the research in Colombia in partnership with ODI in the UK. But the COVID-19 lockdowns and contagion concerns meant carrying out traditional qualitative fieldwork through site visits was impossible.
One of the key components of the research was carrying out focus-group discussions with displaced Venezuelans, IDPs, and members of host communities in Bogotá and in Cúcuta, a city on the border with Venezuela..
Fortunately, we had already conducted the quantitative phase of our research before the pandemic started, when it was possible to collect in-person data using a random survey in low-income neighborhoods in Bogotá and Cúcuta. We compiled phone numbers from Venezuelans, IDPs and host community members who had agreed to be contacted with further questions. As a result, we were in a stronger position to shift from an in-person to a phone-based qualitative research strategy.
When adapting our methodology to a phone-based strategy, we used WhatsApp as the focus group discussion platform. Although by no means universal, WhatsApp is rather widely used in many low- and middle-income countries, including among Colombians and displaced Venezuelans.
To enhance participants’ access to WhatsApp, we provided unlimited internet access for one week to incentivize participation. The data plan was activated only after a potential participant provided their informed consent by sending a text message back to the researcher. A series of short videos and tutorials explaining how to respond to questions and interact with other participants was provided. We also provided video reminders of the purpose and topics of the focus groups, as well as the importance of maintaining confidentiality, including instructions on how to delete the conversations after the discussions ended.
The focus group discussions lasted one week and covered one section per day. Each morning, we sent a question to the group in the form of a short video, an image, or a text message that included emoticons to get their attention. We followed-up with questions and reminders throughout the day, being mindful of the timing to increase participation. The moderators made sure to keep the conversation flowing, inviting participants to react to other people's answers and to communicate through text, voice notes, GIFs, or memes.
Upon completing the focus groups, we removed each participant from the group chat. The chat was downloaded from the app alongside the voice notes shared by the participants. The voice notes were transcribed, and these transcriptions were combined to obtain one text-only file per focus group discussion.
What we learned
This method yielded rich conversations and debates about social protection among our groups of interest, revealing the participants’ diverse perspectives and experiences concerning the provision of social protection in Bogotá and Cúcuta. Since participation in WhatsApp group chats is part of people’s daily lives, interactions felt familiar, and conversations flowed well.
Ease of interaction is crucial to ensure high-quality data from discussion groups. The remote strategy also made participation easier as people could respond throughout the day in their downtime and could participate in various ways (i.e., text message, voice notes, images); they could take time to think through the questions and react to the interventions from other participants, regardless of their schedules and locations.
Despite the benefits of this approach, we also faced challenges. First, not everyone has a smartphone, knows how to use one, or has good connectivity. Our focus groups were limited to those who were able to access and use smartphones, whose perspectives on accessing social protection may differ significantly from those we couldn’t reach. More research is needed to understand the specific challenges faced by those without access to a phone.
In addition, some displaced Venezuelans share mobile devices with other family members, posing risks to data confidentiality that need to be managed. In our case, we emphasized the importance of keeping the conversation confidential and guided participants with detailed instructions on how to delete the conversation once the focus group was finished.
Furthermore, the moderation of focus groups over WhatsApp requires continuous monitoring and follow-up, which is time-consuming..
Finally, it is difficult to follow up with individuals who decide to stop participating or simply leave the group. In these instances, we reached out to participants individually to understand why they left, but the remoteness limited our ability to closely follow up on cases.
others. Finding ways to include hard-to-reach populations is part of conducting good research. These voices are fundamental to understanding community priorities and the on-the-ground performance of policies and programs that aim to improve people’s well-being and quality of life.. We learned that additional efforts need to be taken to understand potential participants profiles and anticipate. —using WhatsApp is just one example, but there are