Handbook on Data Collection / Phase Five: Prepare Data Collection

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Phase four of this Handbook focuses on how to collect data by looking step by step at survey design and sample design. Once that’s complete, it’s time to put all the work you’ve done into action in the field. Preparation is key to ensuring the high quality of the end result and the efficiency of the data collection exercise. Before going out into the field to collect data, it’s important to adequately plan and prepare all aspects of the process.

Preparing data collection in six steps

Step 1: Map processes and logistics
Step 2: Recruit team and set responsibilities
Step 3: Prepare survey
Step 4: Train participants
Step 5: Pilot data collection process
Step 6: Finalise and launch data collection

Following these steps will ensure that your data collection goes as smoothly as possible and yields high quality and timely data.

Practical suggestions to prepare data collection:

  • Test the survey thoroughly before data collection.
  • Ensure data collectors have a consistent understanding of terminology, survey logic, and the purpose of each question.
  • Define clear roles, responsibilities, and timelines, and communicate these to the team members.
  • Build contingencies into the data collection plan - things rarely go as planned, so it is important to have a few alternative plans.

Step one: Map processes and logistics

Mapping out the data collection process from start to finish will assist in determining the logistics that need to be prepared. This includes creating a list of all necessary tasks and roles throughout the data collection process, and considering the necessary skill sets for successful completion. Doing this early helps to identify potential gaps or issues that may arise, and roles that need to be filled. The following steps should be taken when mapping out the process.

Seek approval and inform the right people

In many locations, it is important to inform local authorities and the local population (interviewees) before proceeding with data collection. In some cases, you may need a certificate or formal approval from local authorities in order to conduct the surveys. You may need to organise a local information session, or assign a community liaison who will be a point of contact and responsible for handling incoming questions. In addition to the formal procedures, it’s also advisable to get informed about the attitude of the local population towards the data collection itself as well as any tools you might use to collect the data. If you have to do water quality tests for example, make sure the people know what you are doing to avoid misconceptions about the materials you are using.

Finally, it’s important that you gain the informed consent of the participants interviewed. This may require a signature or verbal consent, so be sure to keep a copy of the consent form and information about the project at the ready.

Clarify logistics and budget constraints

Logistics and budget will take up a large part of this planning stage. During field work, data collectors can be exposed to different risks. Knowing how to handle those risks and creating a safe environment is part of everyone's role and clearly defined responsibilities are essential. Define what equipment will be used, who owns it, and what happens if something is broken or lost.

For field work logistics and budgeting, consider:
Equipment: What equipment will data collectors need for their field work and travelling?

  • What technical features does the material require, especially phones for digital collection systems?
  • Does one of the parties have administrative constraints in ordering equipment? Government bodies often have protocols to follow which can delay the procurement process for several months.
  • Is there any equipment that needs to be shipped from another country and, if yes, what are the procedures and timeframes for clearing the shipment? To whom will the shipment be addressed? Is the help from custom brokers needed and, if yes, who will be responsible for starting the procedure?
  • For paper-based surveys, you will need to arrange printing of the final survey form. Who will be responsible? How many forms will need to be printed?

Local context: What is the safety situation in that area and are special precautions necessary? At what time of the year are the data collectors travelling and are there any constraints related to climate? What means of transportation is most suitable for the local context? Are the data collectors and their equipment insured and, if not, how will any accidents be handled? What official documents do the data collectors need to carry with them?

  • Accommodation and infrastructure: Take care to arrange accommodation and means of communication in advance, especially in rural areas. Is there network reception available and do you need internet connection? Is electricity readily available at the destination, will power packs and battery charging packs need to be purchased?
  • People: Are there travel schedules available? Take holy days and holidays into account during which data collectors or interviewees might not be available. Seasonality may also have a major impact on the availability of them both. For instance, try to plan the data collection outside planting and harvest seasons.
  • Budgeting: Who will cover the costs of the aforementioned elements? How will the payment of the data collectors be calculated and what will the rate be? Will meal costs be covered? Is the whole sum given in advance or will it be paid in installments?

All of the above also applies to supervisors who perform field visits.

Check communication system

Communications will need to work in two directions - from the data collectors to the data managers and back from the data managers to the data collectors. In case any answers need to be cross checked, ensure that a clear identification system is in place that links data collectors with each survey they have collected. If using a mobile-based data collection system, ensure that each device used for mobile data collection is linked to a data collector.

Also ensure support materials and a support system are in place in case data collectors and other users require assistance while in the field.

Step two: Recruit team and set responsibilities

Now that roles and responsibilities have been set for practical matters, the same has to be done for the processes within the data collection chain. This will allow the whole team to work well together and focus on evaluating and improving the quality of the data. For example, who will be responsible if there are problems with the survey, who will check and clean the data, and who will oversee the performance of data collectors?

Defining roles

Below is an outline of general roles that appear during the data collection process. When assigning roles and responsibilities consider the skill sets already available – who may already have experience that would make them suitable for a specific role? Who will be responsible for survey creation and data checking, cleaning, and analysis?

Role Purpose Tips
Data collector Collects data and interviews participants. Field work can be very demanding, yet it's needed to make data collectors aware of what it entails, during training.
Team lead Supervises small groups of data collectors and acts as contact points between data collectors and coordinator/data team.
Data collector coordinator Ensures logistics of the training sessions and data collection are prepared in advance. Should be a centralised person who data collectors can recognise and be able to contact. If using a digital system, this person doesn’t have to be the same as a dashboard manager.
Data processor/digitiser Digitises the surveys if they are paper-based, so data is aggregated and ready for analysis. This can be scanning/typing up responses or coding any qualitative answers. Depending on sample size, this role may be filled by multiple people. Have a simple system set up and communicate it before processing begins.
Data quality auditor Checks incoming data for quality and ensures the sampling is evenly spread. Perform daily if using a digital system. For a paper based system, do in batches as data arrives. (Can be multiple people in this role). Check regularly from the beginning, data quality can be ensured as issues are detected in an early stage (also see phase six).
Dashboard user Performs specific duties, such as checking incoming data quantity and ensuring the data collectors are meeting their quotas.
Dashboard manager (digital system) Oversees the data collection process and ensures it runs smoothly.
Data analyst Performs analysis and necessary visualisations. (See phase seven for more details). Data analyst is familiar with the survey content, programme objectives, and the sample design.

Step three: Prepare survey

Once the questions and order have been designed (see phase four for guidance), ensure the survey has been translated into relevant languages, during preparation for data collection and prior to the training.

Digital systems

Digital or mobile-based data collection systems are recommended as they provide a faster, lighter data collection with the capacity to collect a broader range of data types through one tool. 1

If you are using a digital system, such as a smartphone, ensure that the survey has been digitised and tested on an appropriate device to confirm that the in-built logic of questions work in practice.

A final and vital step in preparing for digital data collection is to ensure appropriate devices and relevant accessories (power banks, screen protectors, adapters, sensors and/or test strips) have been procured well in advance of any training or pilot exercises to minimise confusion and user error. When selecting hardware for smartphone-based data collection, be clear about the necessary functionality and specifications required for your data collection platform.

When procuring your devices, consider the following:


  • Internal memory of the phone and possibility for adding external memory.
  • Camera, battery and screen requirements.
  • USB On-The-Go connection (OTG) and GPS.


  • Which operating system is the phone running on?
  • What software version is required as a minimum for the app to run?

Step four: Training

Nothing can replace thorough training sessions, ensuring all members of the team understand their roles and responsibilities or the tools and survey being used. These factors will significantly affect the efficiency of the data collection process and the quality of data collected.

To maximise training session benefits, consider:

Venue and logistics

The venue will need to be appropriately equipped, including (but not limited to) presentation material, air conditioning, Internet connection, projector, flip boards, microphones, pens, markers, paper and multiple plug sockets. Think about size, accessibility and location (within or outside of the city). Will transport need to be organised?

Who will cover the renting costs, costs of materials, costs of meals and costs of participants (both for travelling and participation of data collectors and trainers)? Also consider the administration needed to justify and keep track of expenses, e.g. keeping a list of participants for receipt of their daily allowance and equipment, etc.

Training materials

Develop presentation materials, guides and tutorials and prepare all necessary data collection tools for use during the training session (for example, configure smartphones, equip them with the right software and content, print the survey if using paper based forms).

Training methodology and agenda

Training objectives for data collectors are often threefold:

  1. Master data collection tools.
  2. Master the content of the questions on paper and their translation in the field.
  3. Have an understanding of the concept behind the monitoring and evaluation (M&E) system in which the survey is integrated.

This means training always involves teamwork. A clear methodology should be agreed upon and all decisions relating to the agenda should be defined once all parties have been consulted.

To ensure data collectors have a clear understanding of the logic which underpins the survey, review each question as a group to ensure consistent understanding, then test the process as a group. Data collectors often have field knowledge and can add valuable contributions.

Lastly, the training should sufficiently inform the data collectors regarding workload, their roles and responsibilities (e.g. materials used in the field), and the risks of doing fieldwork. This filters out participants who do not want or are not able to meet these expectations. It is highly advisable to clearly describe this in the data collector's contract.

Step five: Pilot data collection process

It is best practice and strongly recommended to pilot a survey before commencing the full data collection round. This will help to resolve any practical issues before data collection has begun, which is far easier than making changes during data collection.

A short pilot serves a number of purposes:

  1. Testing the survey (and any tools/software) for kinks, faults, or user errors.
  2. Providing a chance to run the entire ‘workflow’ in a controlled environment, ensuring everyone knows what they are meant to be doing, when, and how.
  3. Checking if the data collectors understand the survey questions and test them in a realistic context.

While the pilot of the survey is occurring, dashboard managers should practice monitoring incoming data for quality and see if the questions asked in the survey are generating the right information. If there are any questions with strange answers, make sure to clarify with the data collectors. This is best done as a group activity, in order to discuss questions that may need revision and to get feedback from the data collectors on any problems they encountered, either with the survey content or the technology being used.

Step six: Finalise and launch data collection

After incorporating any feedback from the pilot and making final adjustments, the survey can be finalised. You will need to ensure that all devices to be used for data collection have the correct survey version present, or that the correct survey version has been printed and distributed.

To avoid confusion, ensure that all pilot data collected during the training sessions has been removed from your database or at least clearly marked.

Suggested reading


  1. Moving with the changing landscape of field data collection – benefiting from a transition to tablets


Authors: Camille Clerx (Akvo.org), Nikki Sloan (Akvo.org), Stefan Kraus (Akvo.org)
Contributors: Hans van der Kwast (IHE Delft Institute for Water Education), Harro Riedstra (Akvo.org), Rajashi Mukherjee (Akvo.org)


The Africa-EU Innovation Alliance for Water and Climate (AfriAlliance), is a 5-year project funded by the European Union’s H2020 Research and Innovation Programme. It aims to improve African preparedness for climate change challenges by stimulating knowledge sharing and collaboration between African and European stakeholders. Rather than creating new networks, the 16 EU and African partners in this project will consolidate existing ones, consisting of scientists, decision makers, practitioners, citizens and other key stakeholders, into an effective, problem-focused knowledge sharing mechanism.
AfriAlliance is lead by the IHE Delft Institute for Water Education (Project Director: Dr. Uta Wehn) and runs from 2016 to 2021. The project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 689162.
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