Remotely Different: A Tale of Research in COVID  

Illustration by Anthony Mogaka

By Franciscah Nzanga (1), Tabitha Mberi (1), Stephen Odindo (1), Isaac Mwangi (1), Beatrice Wasunna (2) and Nengapate Kuria (3)

When you hear the word remote, it probably signals an access challenge. It creates the visual image of a rural or distant area, far off from the general population, possibly with a satellite phone – remember those – and litres of water on hand to ease the journey. That is no longer the case. The world we live in is one where you can make a 138 hour journey that physically spans 9,829.6Km in thirty seconds. That is the distance between Paris and Busia. Thirty seconds is the duration of a not so stable connection launching. Social media and digital platforms have opened up almost every corner of the world. 

The added marvel is the ability to reach people who you would generally have to travel miles, after months of planning, to have a chat with and gain a better understanding of their thinking and behavior. This opportunity is enough to make us as researchers swoon – right alongside that moment when we realise our model actually works, or identify a new gap in research that makes our work unique, or even better, our work has been cited in a publication.

When COVID-19 stalled on-the-ground fieldwork, all we could see was the growing physical distance between ourselves and the communities we work with. For the Innovation Network at Living Goods, this meant an overhaul of the entire service delivery and research process to ensure it worked from a distance. As a result, we quickly learned that remote is no longer the barrier it posed. The learning curve was steep and punctuated by moments of joy and excitement at what we could accomplish, as well as lessons on what could be done better.

One such moment was the creation of a self-assessment tool, which tackled social distancing measures by allowing individuals to check their COVID symptoms from the comfort of their own homes. The lesson from designing for the virtual world and collecting data amid the chaos of the internet’s information overload taught us quite a few things about remote research, some as simple as staying in touch, and others that were more nuanced yet also straightforward.

Bring phone calls back. From our experience of trying SMS surveys [too much programming], data collection apps [a lot of waiting], and just sending out surveys in text messages [getting ignored], we found phone calls simple and easy to execute. We mostly work with rural and urban low literacy populations so having the chance to explain things to them and clarify their questions was key. Plus, phone surveys work for both qualitative and quantitative questions, which have made them a staple in our organization.

Don’t hesitate to reach out. There are multiple ways to collect data online, depending on what you’re looking for. However, the ways to ensure people respond to you or even remember to set aside time for your survey is limited. We learned that sending SMSs one day in advance or setting up appointments helped people remember the survey and prepare themselves to participate. In our communities, we backed this up with communications to the health centers of different districts and community health volunteers to make sure people were ready to be surveyed.

Track everything and then check again. When running two-week sprints that involved designing and testing an idea, we had to make sure we were on top of all the moving pieces, from design ideas to prototypes to the final dataset. Creating extensive tracking sheets that allowed us to see how many respondents had answered our survey, how many people we still had to interview, and ideas for data analysis saved us a lot of time that might have been spent coordinating between team members or holding daily meetings. Bonus points if multiple people can use your tracking sheets at once [thank you Google Sheets and MS Teams]!

Co-Creation is your friend. The time away from our usual ways of working and having to adapt to new models of collecting data made us wonder if there was an in-between. While meeting people in their communities fostered a strong bond, collecting data remotely could be simpler and more streamlined at times. We embarked upon a number of co-creation sessions with our partners to go through our current research processes and see if we could make any changes for the better. Doing this helped us learn a lot from our partners’ experience and begin to build tools to strengthen our work in the long run. One thing we’re really excited about is recording and transcribing qualitative interviews instead of taking notes. This will help us preserve the natural language and authenticity of what our respondents tell us.

Now’s the chance to experiment. Interacting with community members in person was one of our mainstays. But that disappeared quickly with COVID. We found ourselves wondering how we could continue to preserve the balance of trust and constructive feedback, even though so much had changed. So, to stay in touch with our CHVs, we tried out a bunch of things that we had never thought of before: user testing, A / B tests, behavioral science insights, and different behaviour change messages. We wanted to boost the motivation of community health workers so we sent them badges to showcase on Whatsapp. We were curious to know if there was a good day and time to reach out to people so we tested out many time slots for different groups and analysed the outcome. Trying these things helped us understand which new methods could work for us and expanded the range of work we did.

Conducting research seemed daunting nine months ago but today, it has efficiently blended with our research processes. As focus group discussions move to Whatsapp and data is collected in the form of photographs, remote research will keep evolving and improving. The tale of our remote research journey is far from over, and we are excited to be a part of it as we work to understand what works best in the health space. 

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This blog post was written to highlight the engagement between Living Goods and Busara, which led to the creation of toolkits and templates for quantitative and qualitative research.

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(1) Living Goods

(2) Medic

(3) Busara Center for Behavioral Economics

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