Tools for on-the-ground research
Technical specialists and researchers at the Population Council have worked for a decade developing technologies that increase the accuracy and speed of data collection while reducing errors and cost.
Because the Council's work takes place primarily in the developing world, Council programmers and engineers often must take into account social taboos, unfamiliarity with electronic hardware, and low literacy. This experience has earned the Council an unmatched expertise in technologies that really work in the field and on the ground.
We often work with partners who come to us with a particular need or challenge. Sometimes we adapt off-the-shelf products, and sometimes we create applications from scratch.
Here are brief descriptions of our most popular tools and technologies, as well as technical information.
ACASI is the difference between having to say "I had unprotected sex twice last week" out loud to a stranger or touching the number 2 on a screen.
When researchers conduct surveys, too often there is a gap between what is true and what people are willing to reveal.
The Population Council’s information technology arm has developed an array of electronic tools, suited to diverse settings and needs, that have been shown to reduce distortion in research on sensitive subjects. One such tool is our customization of audio computer-assisted self-interviewing (ACASI) for surveying populations in the developing world.
ACASI is an innovative technology that allows respondents to answer recorded questions using headphones and a computer, laptop, Netbook, personal digital assistant (PDA), or other device. The questions are standardized, and the data collected are more accurate and become instantly available. Studies comparing ACASI interviews with face-to-face interviews indicate that participants are more likely to honestly report high-risk behaviors when using the more private and confidential ACASI.
Other versions allow a live interviewer to ask the questions, while the answers are entered into a computer; or for the respondent to read as well as answer the questions electronically.
Computer-assisted interviewing can be adapted for literate or illiterate populations (we've created programs that allow respondents to answer questions by clicking on drawings or colors, and the ACASI application is already available in 21 languages and dialects). This technology has been used in clinical trials, in schools, in door-to-door surveys, and more.
Computer-assisted self-interviewing is flexible, adaptable, and efficient. It is unquestionably the wave of the future.
Customizing existing programs
Sometimes it's possible to take out-of-the-box software and make it do things its programmers could never foresee. For example, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) had a significant body of information stored in Microsoft Excel, but demographers couldn't get at it easily or use it the way they needed to.
At UNFPA's request, we customized the Excel application by redesigning everything from the look of the screen to the way the data could be accessed and manipulated. Information that was difficult to manipulate and thus underused is now conveniently available to demographers and others all over the world.
We can also adapt existing applications to use with different hardware, such as laptops, PDAs, Netbooks, or mobile phones. For example, we adapted an off-the-shelf software package for a pharmacy/chemical worker study in Ghana conducted with PDAs.
Creating custom software
Sometimes the program you need doesn't exist yet. Luckily, creating new programs may be where the Population Council's IT expertise is most valuable. We understand that customizing applications is a necessity for research-based organizations.
Our experience comes from creating our own software for work in low-resource, low-literacy areas. We know how to ask you the right questions and actively listen to your answers. We collaborate, so the software is better suited to your needs and more accepted by its users, who helped develop it.
Interactive voice response systems (IVRS) via mobile phones
Mobile phones are a technology that virtually everyone understands and uses. In the developing world, people use mobiles for business and education, for tracking epidemics, for helping farmers . . . and for conducting surveys.
"Average penetration [of mobile phones in Africa] stands at more than a third of the population," according to the Guardian in 2009, "and in north Africa it is almost two-thirds." Nearly 60 percent of Pakistan's population and over 70 percent of Mexico's have mobiles.
The Council's IT center has adapted a cell phone application for our researchers who are collecting behavioral data in studies in Zambia and India, and we are adapting another IVRS for Internet use for an Indian study asking short questions of its respondents every day.
Short message service (SMS)
Our IT development team is now in the middle of building a prototype SMS application to allow our investigators to utilize this new and emerging technology. Given the ubiquity of cell phones in the developing world, we see a need to continue to find ways to integrate this new and available technology.
Trainings: Manuals and courses
We are often asked to write manuals for applications we have created or adapted. The resulting documents—for users, trainers, or both—are in clear language, professionally written, and attractively presented.
In addition, we have created and conducted trainings for data-capture administrators, demographers, door-to-door surveyors, clinic staffs, nurses, social workers, and more.
For more information about Council-developed software or services, contact:
Director, Information Technology
Senior Application Programmer/Database Developer
or visit our project page on ACASI: http://www.popcouncil.org/projects/246_ACASI.asp
ACASI project partners and collaborators
- Centre for Educational Research and Training (CERT), University of Malawi, Zomba
- Family Health International (FHI)
- Guttmacher Institute
- ICF Macro
- International Partnership for Microbicides
- Magee-Women’s Research Institute (MWRI)
- Microbicide Trials Network
- RTI International
- Statistical Center for HIV/AIDS Research & Prevention (SCHARP)
- Uganda Bureau of Statistics
- University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA)
- University of Pennsylvania
- US National Institutes of Health
- Y.R. Gaitonde Centre for AIDS Research and Education (YRG CARE)
- Zambia-Emory HIV Research Project (ZEHRP)
- Magee-Womens Research Institute (MWRI)
- Sweden Ministry for Foreign Affairs
- The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation
- The Spencer Foundation
- The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation
- US Agency for International Development
- US National Institutes of Health