Tuesday, September 8, 2009

When Will Paper Surveys Die?

At IPA-Ghana, we almost exclusively use paper to keep track of everything, despite that fact that just about everyone who works with us carries around enough processing power in their pocket to administer a reasonably complex survey using just their cell phone. The main argument against digital data collection is usually just that the researchers are uncomfortable with the idea of not having a piece of paper to look back to, just in case it's ever necessary. In the words of a coworker, "I feel like I'm at that firm in the 80s scared of the word processor!" It does feel rather similar to the, "If I'm not using a typewriter, how will I have a carbon copy?" argument.

The mobile computing technology is absolutely there. You can administer a survey on a cell-phone like PDA (or PDA-like cell phone), send the data back to the researcher's computer, and have the researcher send back a randomized treatment (eg, gets a loan/doesn't get a loan) instantly. Or you can use a $300 netbook, plug a little 3G modem into, and do the same. Sure, dealing with all this technology would be frustrating, but it would be an exciting type of frustrating, as opposed to the hassle of paper surveys, which just make you pull your hair out -- this I know from experience, having lost a lot of hair today...

I was supposed to have all of our paper questionnaires ready to go by 9 am this morning on a new survey for the consulting project. I went to one printing company, but gave up because his machine was too slow. Back at the office, I realized that his virus-ridden computer corrupted my file and everything I printed had errors and was completely worthless. So I spent the next hour re-doing everything I had done between 12 am and 1 am this morning. After sorting this out, I set up to print with the office printer, which just returned after three months of being MIA at a repairs shop. Well, it only lasted about 20 pages before breaking again. I set off for a second printing company thinking, "Wow, I'm really having bad printer juju today" -- I didn't know the half of it. The second print company is fast, but his machine kept jamming... and jamming... and jamming... until the moment I stood up to leave and find a third printer, when it miraculously starting working again... until he ran out of paper! That's right, the professional printing company ran out of paper. They started cutting A3 paper in half to make A4 paper, but of course that made the printer start jamming... and jamming... and jamming... until I stood up to go again, when it again miraculously began printing... until... they ran out of ink! The printing company. Ran out of paper. Then ink.

I found another printing company, and finally got the questionnaires to the surveyors by 2:30 pm.

When will paper surveys die? Not soon enough...

1 comment:

  1. Good Grief!!! What a story! You must have had to muster up a lot of patience...

    Just think what could change if you could bring about a comfort level for technology!