Contact Via Smartphone Keeps Rural Communities Connected

I have some survey questions for you: How many times did you skip class as a senior in college? How much money did you spend on gas last year?

If you answer was “Uhhh…,” you’re in good company. Researchers at New York University have discovered that short, frequent surveys that ask about things that are happening right now are much more effective at capturing information than ones that ask you to look back on a long swath of time.

And they discovered that delivering these short, frequent surveys—”Is anyone sick in your family right now?” “How much did you spend on clothes this week?”—to people in rural areas can provide important information that governments and policymakers, usually located in population centers, need and generally lack.

The research team of Andrew Reid Bell, Mary Killilea, Patrick Ward and Ehsanul Haque Tamal distributed smartphones to 500 residents across 40 villages in a rural area of Bangladesh. Using these phones, participants responded to a selection from 46 different survey tasks about a variety of things—shopping habits, illness, absence from work or school and more—either once a week, once a month or once every three months. In exchange, the participants were given minutes and data for personal use of their cellphones.

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An example of an on-screen survey task posed to a study participant. Image courtesy of the researchers.

The researchers found that the people who were engaged on multiple survey topics every week reported much more accurate and specific information than the ones who were polled once a month or less on their families’ and villages’ activities, suggesting that “traditional approaches to surveying may miss patterns of variation across the year, or smaller events that lose significance to the respondent over time,” Killilea said in a news release about the study.

This method of data collection seems like it could be invaluable to governments, as well as researchers who want to study isolated rural communities. But it also has the potential to connect rural parts of the globe with our rapidly globalizing society and economy. Through the study, participants had the option to “earn” their smartphones, getting to keep the device if they earned a certain number of points by participating in the survey tasks a certain number of times.

“Our research shows that we can deploy this technology to change the way we engage with rural communities,” Bell said in the release.

Katie Moritz

Katie Moritz is Rewire’s senior editor and a Pisces who enjoys thrift stores, rock concerts and pho. She covered politics for a newspaper in Juneau, Alaska, before driving down to balmy Minnesota to help produce long-standing public affairs show “Almanac” at Twin Cities PBS. Now she works on this here website. Reach her via email at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @katecmoritz.