Department of Economic and Social Affairs

Statistics • COVID-19 response

From face-to-face interviews to telephone interviews and web-based self-reporting


This article is also available in Russian.

In an effort to contain the spread of the COVID-19 epidemic, many governments are imposing severe restrictions on the mobility of their populations, disrupting field statistical data collection operations and threatening the ability of National Statistical Offices to deliver high-quality, timely and cost-effective statistical outputs.

It is imperative to leverage innovative technologies and approaches to ensure the continuity of censuses, household surveys, and other major statistical programmes. This includes making use, to the fullest extent possible, of mobile connectivity, cloud computing, smart mobile devises, and other technological innovations that offer alternative means to ensure that activities around the capturing, validation, processing and dissemination of census and survey data can go on in the new environment of limited mobility of staff and of the population at large.

Priority objectives in the adaptation of data collection processes are:

  • Maintaining adequate coverage of the target populations
  • Ensuring high questionnaire- and item-response
  • Guaranteeing overall quality of the data collected
  • Maintaining timely data collection, processing and dissemination
  • Minimizing response burden
  • Using resources efficiently / minimizing cost of statistical operations

There is an urgent need to replace many of the current field data collection operations that rely on face-to-face interviews with alternative remote data collection methodologies, such as telephone personal interviewing or paper or web-based self-reporting methods, or with methods that leverage alternative sources of data, such as administrative records or so-called “big data” sources (e.g., remote sensing and earth observation, mobile phone records, scanner data, credit card records, etc.). To respond to this challenge, many countries need to build quickly the necessary capacity to accelerate the implementation of fully digital data collection technologies instead of traditional paper-based methods.

Time is a key factor in selecting alternative data collection approaches to ensure the continuity of statistical operations, including the estimated time necessary to procure/develop, test and deploy technical solutions, and to train staff in new skills and the use of new technologies.

It is also crucial to design and launch as quickly as possible a contact and communication strategy towards respondents in the target population, aimed to maximize high response rates in a new web-based or telephone-based data collection setting. This include communications soliciting households to complete online questionnaires or to be interviewed by telephone, sending reminders and follow-ups in case of non-response.

Even National Statistical Offices that have started using electronic data collection approaches, such as computer-assessed personal interviews (CAPI), still rely heavily on personal interviews, some of the challenges in moving away from face-to-face interviews to remote interviews and self-reporting methodologies include:

  • Implement new mechanisms to identify, contact, authenticate and communicate with respondents
  • Establish mechanisms to geo-locate responses obtained via remote interviewing and self-reporting.
  • Procure/develop and test IT systems to support computer-assisted telephone interviews and online self-reporting portals
  • Implement mechanisms to support respondents in completing online questionnaires
  • Implement mechanisms to support and oversee telephone-based interview workflows
  • Ensure secure remote access to IT systems and secure data exchange.

National Statistical Offices that have already in place data collection programmes based on computer-assisted personal interviews (CAPI) may consider re-purposing this existing software and hardware infrastructure to support computer-assisted telephone interviews (CATI) instead. This would allow to leverage the existing devices (tablets, personal digital assistants, smart phones or portable computers) as well as their specialized software, including their ability to instantly transmit data over mobile data networks. However, this re-purposing is not trivial. For instance, it requires to integrate CATI operations with existing digital mapping and operational management applications built under the assumption that enumerators/interviewers would be entering the data on the same location as the respondent. As interviewers will now be entering the information from a remote location, this creates new challenges for the automatic geo-coding of questionnaire responses and for the supervision of the interview process.