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COVID-19 and reflections for opinion research

I recently stumbled on a social media post depicting a skeleton with its head on a laptop, and captioned: Cause of death, Webinar. I found this hilarious, and quite instructive of the season; as it alluded to the sharp increase in the number of webinars and online events organised in Nigeria, and around the world, over the last three months. Interestingly, this trend appears to have become the new normal, and it is therefore unsurprising to read about the exponential growth experienced by the likes of Skype and Zoom Video Communications Inc., owners of the American video conferencing app. Zoom’s market capitalisation skyrocketed from $623 million about a year ago to a whopping $48.8 billion; following an impressive surge in its users, from about 10 million users globally in December 2019 to 300 million users in April 2020. According to pundits, Zoom is now estimated to be worth more than the 7 biggest airlines in the world.

Back to our subject matter, there’s no doubt that the Coronavirus pandemic has had far reaching implications on various sectors, spheres and aspects of human endeavours, and the opinion research, social research, market research and monitoring and evaluation subsectors have experienced their fair share. All over the world market research practitioners, public opinion pollsters, social researchers, evaluators and data science practitioners are beginning to rethink their modus operandi, with attendant implications on how work would be structured and operated moving forward.

Read also; Covid-19: FG to evacuate more Nigerians from India, France, others

Specifically, for public opinion pollsters and researchers whose stock-in-trade is engaging the public to glean their opinions, perceptions and attitudes regarding public policy, social phenomena and market trends amongst others; COVID-19 presents us with a huge opportunity to introspect and adapt. It’s in the light of this introspection that I share a few lessons from my Institute’s adaptation on the conduct of public opinion polls, surveys, social research and evaluation studies.

Rethinking our research methodology – The COVID-19 pandemic has had a profound impact on the approach, techniques and methods used in undertaking social and opinion research. On one hand, there’s been a shift from core positivist to subtle interpretivist approach to opinion research, focusing on much smaller samples than would ordinarily be considered. On the other hand, we’ve had to rethink our entire research process, and replace existing plans for in-person field visits, with virtual meetings and remote techniques of data collection. Consequently, all planned face-to-face, in-person, data collection activities have been put on hold until further notice.

Reconfiguring our research teams and processes – In order to ensure safety of our team members, project teams have been reconfigured to work remotely. Unless absolutely necessary, in-person meetings have been discouraged; and depending on the size of the team, members have been encouraged to organise their meetings using platforms like WhatsApp, Zoom and Google Hangout. More specifically, in order to meet up with the government’s social distancing rules, we’ve had to reconfigure our 50-man opinion polling centre to have enumerators work remotely from their homes; while data management, quality checks and calibrations are managed centrally, using Computed Assisted Telephone or Web Interview (CATI / CAWI) platforms such as SurveyToGo, SurveyCTO and ODK-KoBoCollect. Besides, comparatively, these remote techniques of data collection are mostly more affordable than traditional in-person data collection, requiring field visits.

Collecting data remotely – In the absence of in-person field visits, all primary data now have to be collected remotely via: Telephone interviews, online surveys, Skype interviews, Focus Group sessions via Zoom, mobile questionnaires, satellite imagery and network platforms like WhatsApp, Slack, and Telegram, amongst others. I recall having a fierce debate a few years ago with a Nigerian university professor, who sharply criticised me for presenting data collected via telephone interviews. He quipped that unless collected face-to-face, data collected telephonically couldn’t be considered valuable to social research.

In response, I argued that with Nigeria’s GSM penetration rate of almost 100 percent (according to Nigeria Communications Commission), telephone surveys can most certainly stand shoulder-to-shoulder with in-person surveys. I retorted that if a telephone poll of 1,000 sample could be relied upon to make critical policy decisions in the United States’ White House, why should Nigeria be any different; especially when the poll was conducted professionally to meet global polling standards. Thanks to COVID-19, more academics and research professionals are now beginning to embrace remote data collection techniques, beyond traditional in-person, face-to-face techniques.

Engaging stakeholders virtually – Especially for engaging donors, partners, stakeholders and clients, virtual meetings have become our new reality. In the last three months I have personally participated in over a dozen virtual meetings on Zoom, Google Hangouts and Skype. Interestingly, before the pandemic, some of these meetings would have required traveling out of town to visit the offices of clients and stakeholders. But with the advent of COVID-19, there seems to be a new thinking, which now considers such traveling and burning of air miles simply unnecessary.

Sharing research results globally – For public dissemination and communication of opinion poll and survey results, COVID-19 has made social media much more valuable. Social networking platforms like Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn can enable connection and engagement with target audiences such as donors, partners, public institutions and decision makers.

In conclusion, while these are just a few lessons from early months, we are yet to fully comprehend the longer-term impact of COVID-19 on social and opinion research. However, the early signs from the “new normal” seem to be opening up new vistas of techniques, methods, strategies and approaches to enable researchers become more resilient to managing future shocks and emergency situations. It is my hope that someday, as opinion pollsters and social research practitioners, we may look back and be thankful for the Coronavirus pandemic; but that would be as long as we don’t get slain by excessive webinars.

Dr. Ihua is executive director at Africa Polling Institute (API), an Abuja-based Opinion Research think-tank. He holds a PhD in Management from University of Kent, and was formerly a faculty member at Coventry University, United Kingdom.

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