Trust me, I can do this’: examining the essential role enumerators play in enhancing data quality in household surveys

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‘The training in Ethiopia had started when Tigist informed me that two enumerators were pregnant. Really pregnant. I immediately envisioned the risks involved with them working at high altitudes of 2800 to 3500 meters, on steep and remote terrains, potentially without cell network or emergency access. What if complications arose in these inaccessible locations? How could I put this responsibility on Tigist and the women who were taking risks for their income and my work?’ – Birgit Habermann, ILRI Scientist. 

Unknown to most people is the reality that household survey enumerators sometimes brave personal risks to collect data. A household survey is a systematic and important research method that employs open-source digital tools like ODK for data collection on tablets, complete with time and GPS tracking. Yet, despite the use of advanced technology, the process still necessitates in-person visits to respondents’ homes. 

The household survey tool used in the climate adaptation pioneer project under the CGIAR Research Initiative on Livestock and Climate is the Rural Household Multi-Indicator Survey tool, or RHoMIS for short. Results from the survey will establish a baseline for the initiative’s work around enhancing local adaptation capabilities and promoting more inclusive scaling technologies in sites in Ethiopia and Kenya. Twenty-four enumerators were hired for two months to cover 2032 households across 19 administrative units in total – a logistically demanding undertaking.  

We are applying our farmer-led adaptation approach at these sites, which involves identifying farmers who have successfully adapted to the challenges of climate change in livestock management. We refer to them as ‘climate adaptation pioneers’, as well as “positive deviants”. The household survey is also helping us select these positive deviant livestock farmers using a pareto-optimality approach, which has been successfully used in similar research in the past. In essence, the pareto-optimality approach ensures that resources are allocated in a way where no individual can benefit without another being worse off, maximizing overall efficiency. 

Good data comes with trust  

 Conducting household surveys demands a significant investment of time, resources, and a dedicated enumerator team to ensure data accuracy. Enumerators are the unsung heroes who venture into communities to collect valuable information, often in rural areas with treacherous roads, unpredictable weather, vast distances between households, and residents’ sporadic availability. Enumerators are mainly driven by the need to earn income, even when it means accepting short-term assignments with high risks that push them beyond their comfort zones. 

 ‘There was fog for a long time in the day and we were frightened to walk by foot to the village because we couldn’t see where we were.  The fog and inaccurate GPS nearly drove us off a cliff into a gorge. There was heavy rain and cold, and it was difficult to even to touch the tablet.’ – Enumerator in Ethiopia 

An enumerator climbs a steep hill to reach survey respondents in Ethiopia. (Photo credit: ILRI/Tigist Worku).
An enumerator climbs a steep hill to reach survey respondents in Ethiopia (Photo credit:  T.Worku/ILRI).

The remote supervisor faces a constant stream of communication, with phones rarely switched off and late-night messages exchanged within the team. Robust support systems are essential, with enumerators encouraged to reach out any time for help, because unexpected challenges can arise at any time.  

‘The next respondent was with his brother who said, “No, you cant interview my brother. People who come like this give forms to sign for loans.’ I tried to explain and show him the list of other farmers we had visited. He took it and threatened to tear it into pieces. We begged him not to, refusing to hand us back the list. He walked out shouting and threatening to beat me up, but I couldn’t leave without the list.’  – Enumerator in Kenya 

Data quality is only as good as the enumerators, therefore supporting enumerators is a must.  Besides training them to effectively conduct surveys, ensuring their safety and physical and emotional well-being are tantamount, as well as recognizing their pivotal role in shaping our understanding of communities.  

Consistent check-ins with enumerators and supervisors are so critical. We had weekly meetings and optimized informal chats during travel. As supervisors, we need to be alert to all kinds of potential challenges such as enuemrators getting lost, quitting and submitting false records. We even had a concerning accident with the car carrying the pregnant enumerators!” Tigist Worku, Ethiopia survey supervisor  

A survey enumerator interviewing a respondent in Ethiopia. (Photo credit: ILRI/Tigist Worku)
A survey enumerator interviewing a respondent in Ethiopia (Photo credit: T.Worku/ILRI).

Key insights learned from this iterative process showed that enumerators need more support in:  

  1. Training and Empowerment: Equipping enumerators with comprehensive training ensures they possess the skills needed to navigate challenges and maintain data accuracy.  
  2. Safety Measures: Addressing security concerns, providing safety guidelines and establishing support systems are essential for enumerator well-being.
  3. Logistical Support: Equipping enumerators with necessary tools, like bags and power banks, enhances their efficiency and comfort in the field.
  4. Feedback Mechanisms: Creating avenues for enumerators to voice their experiences, challenges and suggestions fosters a culture of continuous improvement.

‘We constantly plan, and adapt, and re-plan. To ensure fairness, enumerators covering long distances are given fewer daily interviews. We rotate distances among them, to help address their concerns about daily quotas and to foster team spirit.’ – Leah Gichuki, Kenya survey supervisor. 

Empowering enumerators isn’t just a matter of data quality; it’s about elevating their well-being and acknowledging their fundamental role in informing policies and interventions. As the saying goes, “it’s better to be roughly right than exactly wrong,” emphasizing that accuracy isn’t solely about data quantity or rigid adherence to rules, but rather the human element that drives it. The dedication, adaptability and resilience of enumerators form the bedrock on which our understanding of communities and our capacity to drive positive change are built. 

Header image: An enumerator in Kenya asking a survey respondent questions. Photo by J.Jepchirchir/ILRI. 

Story by Birgit Habermann and Madison Spinelli

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