June 14, 2023

Conducting phone-based surveys during Covid-19: Some lessons

“Conducting phone-based surveys during COVID-19: Some lessons” explores the challenges and lessons learned from conducting phone-based surveys in the context of the pandemic. With face-to-face data collection methods disrupted due to social distancing measures, researchers and organizations have turned to phone surveys as an alternative means of gathering information.

This article delves into the considerations, strategies, and best practices for conducting phone-based surveys during a global health crisis. It highlights the importance of adapting survey protocols, ensuring respondent privacy and security, and maintaining data quality in remote data collection.

The discussion covers various aspects of phone surveys, including sampling techniques, questionnaire design, interviewer training, and data management. It also addresses the challenges posed by the digital divide, potential biases in phone-based data collection, and strategies to mitigate these limitations.

By sharing experiences and lessons learned, this article provides valuable insights for researchers, survey practitioners, and organizations involved in data collection during challenging circumstances. It aims to enhance the understanding of phone-based survey methodologies and encourages the adoption of effective approaches for generating reliable data.

Moreover, the article emphasizes the significance of considering ethical considerations, building rapport with respondents, and adapting survey instruments to the specific needs and limitations of phone-based surveys. It recognizes the importance of transparency, informed consent, and data protection in upholding ethical standards while collecting information remotely.

As the world continues to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic and its implications on research and data collection, the lessons shared in this article serve as a resource for improving survey methodologies and ensuring the continuity of data-driven insights and decision-making.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the face-to-face interview was the most popular approach to collecting high-quality data.  As the social distancing measures have severely limited the use of face-to-face interviews, researchers in many developing countries are using high-frequency phone surveys to track responses to and socio-economic impacts of COVID-19.

In this ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, the MOMODa Foundation has conducted telephonic interviews for 7 projects and reached nearly 15,000 respondents, half of them are women. For collecting data from women, MOMODa Foundation has also employed local women as surveyors/enumerators which constitutes more than half of the total enumerators employed by the Foundation.  Table-1 highlights MOMODa’s recent experience in telephonic surveys.   

Table 1:

Telephonic Survey Experience of MOMODa FOUNDATION

SN Project Name Sample Size Survey Area Affiliated Partner Project Period
1 G2P COVID-19 Rapid Phone Survey 7300 All over Bangladesh Bill& Melinda Gates Foundation May-Jul 2020
2 Telephonic survey on Spillover Effects of Hand Washing Behaviors in Children – Phase 1 & 2 1575 Gaibandha Harvard University Jul- Aug. 2020 & Mar-Apr 2021
3 Micro-Entrepreneurs Survey in Bangladesh 840 Dhaka, Khulna, Rajshahi, Mymensing IFMR-LEAD, India Aug Aug Aug-Sept 2020
4 Phone-based Household Survey on the Impact of COVID-19  and Lockdown in Gaibandha District in Bangladesh 1752 Gaibandha IDE-JETRO Sept- Oct


5 Collaborative Research Activities on the Effects of the COVID-19 Pandemic in Bangladesh 2560 Gaibandha University of Kent Sept- Oct


6 Micro-equity and Mentorship for Online Freelancing Based Micro-entrepreneurs in Bangladesh- COVID-19 Follow-up 654 Gaibandha University of Oxford Oct-Nov


  Total 14681      

Table-1 shows that the MOMODa Foundation has carried out high-frequency phone surveys on a range of areas including Hand Washing Behaviors, Micro-Entrepreneurs, Skill training, and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. For these surveys, MOMODa made phone calls all over the country, especially for the ‘G2P COVID-19 Rapid Phone Survey’ and in terms of coverage, this project alone constitutes half of the participants who have been interviewed by the MOMODa. However, in terms of projects, the majority of them have been conducted in the Gaibandha district in the Northern part of Bangladesh to understand the socioeconomic impacts of COVID-19 on different groups.

During the coronavirus pandemic, the MOMODa research team has played an important role in shaping the response to the crisis by collecting high-quality data through phone surveys instead of relying on enumerators traveling to hear first-hand accounts from communities. This note provides some insights from the MOMODa’s experience with phone surveys in Bangladesh that research organizations may consider when deciding whether to adopt such an approach:

  1. The MOMODa research team found that phone surveys are extremely effective because they do not require traveling, the method is quick to administer, and they are well-suited for high-frequency data collection campaigns designed to monitor variables in a population over a given period.
  2. Phone surveys can reach a much larger sample than can be achieved by sending enumerators to respondents’ houses, and at a much lower cost. Additionally, the total number of mobile phone subscribers in Bangladesh reached 170.1 million at the end of December 2020. We found that despite Gaibandha being a remote and rural area, almost every household has a phone set which is a remarkable achievement in the way of digitalization of Bangladesh. This has been advantageous for us to collect high-quality data through phone surveys.
  3. We also found that there is a lack of access to a phone in rural areas, compared to urban areas. Vulnerable populations, such as those with a disability, lower incomes, and/or lower educational attainment, are also less likely to have access to a phone. Male respondents are more likely to own phones than female respondents. So we felt that surveying by phone can introduce a gender bias. Therefore, researchers must be cautious in the case of using a phone survey as a tool for collecting data, especially for gender-sensitive studies.
  4. We found that building rapport with the respondent and developing a relationship of trust in the case of a phone interview requires extra effort because when enumerators phone the respondent and introduce themselves, it may make challenging to build a relationship of mutual trust.
  5. Though we can collect open-ended responses from the participant, the telephonic interview does not have the opportunity to understand the non-verbal cues of the participants.  We also noticed that poor network connectivity, voice breaks, and call drops may disrupt the interview.  In this case, to maximize the chances of the respondent staying on the line to complete the survey, phone surveys must be short and sharp, ideally around 10-20 minutes in length.
  6.  Phone surveys offer the possibility of high-frequency data collection because carrying out repeated face-to-face surveys of the same population is a complex and expensive exercise. In this case, high-frequency phone surveys allow for the collection of regular, real-time insights on the same population over some time. Hence, phone surveys can be a good choice for studying how people are faring in a dynamic situation such as the Covid-19 pandemic.
  7. As phone surveys are short, many researchers might wrongly perceive that ethical and research approvals are optional to conduct a phone interview. But to ensure that survey protocols are ethically sound and referral procedures are in place, it is as important as ever to obtain consent from participants, but this must be done verbally rather than in person.
  8. We found that explaining the project to a household and collecting their consent in writing before the survey takes place is easier in the case of face-to-face surveys in comparison to phone surveys. Therefore, it is important to invest extra effort in ensuring that participants understand the research objectives before they agree to participate.
  9. We found that there may also be privacy issues, as the enumerator cannot be sure that no one is listening to the call on the other side. This means it is not appropriate to discuss very sensitive subjects in phone surveys.
  10. Choosing an appropriate length of phone surveys is very important for quality data collection. However, the literature is somewhat mixed on this but reaches a consensus that phone surveys should be shorter than in-person surveys. Phone call duration could be a maximum of 20-25 minutes, but in-person surveys could last for hours.

From the MOMODa’s experience, it can be concluded that collecting data through mobile phones has been very beneficial during the time of the Covid-19 pandemic as conducting face-to-face surveys was not possible due to lockdown and social distancing. But face-to-face surveys cannot be perfectly substituted by mobile phone surveys. As mentioned above, mobile phone surveys have several limitations and are suitable only for some types of surveys and under certain conditions. These need to be carefully considered when deciding which method to choose.


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