Choosing how to contact people, how to administer a survey and collect the data [part 1]

There are many ways to get people to answer survey questions, and many ways to collect the information they give you. Here is a summary of how I chose contact people and how to collect the data I needed through surveys:

Contacting (recruiting) people to take the survey:

There were three main ways to contact people 1) by email, 2) by phone, and 3) in person. Because I needed to interview more than one type of actor in the system (from a city wastewater manager to an individual backyard gardener), from the start I knew there probably would not be only one standard way to contact people. I based my initial list of actors to contact on city reports about urban agriculture and food and waste management and worked with the contact information that was publicly available (a lot of the time it was or a phone number or an email but not both).

My survey is quantitative and my project is a little hard to really explain in two lines so I like the email contact option because then you can really give them all the information they need and they can process it at their own pace. Email correspondence also means you have a record of your interaction with the person of interest which can be helpful. However, its much easier to dismiss an email than a phone call so the response rate seems to be lower.  Thus, although I favor email, if I don’t get an email back within a month of initial contact I think I am going to do call-backs on the phone.

Issue that needed to be addressed: I realized that because I was sending all the info up-front, the survey looked really big and time consuming (even though one can fill it out in 15-20 minutes not problem if they know the information they need to discuss). I thus started to add a note about this in the emails.

For a lot of the municipality-based actors, there are no publicly available email addresses. In these cases I came up with a basic script to present the project and ask them if they wanted to participate or could refer me to the person who would be best suited to discuss the information I wanted to obtain. Phone calls were the necessary entry-point but often an email needed to be sent after the phone call so that the actor could look at something concrete.

Issue that needed to be addressed: After one pretty negative phone call I realized that I was perhaps doing a good enough job explaining the project but not necessarily making the actor feel valued or showing them why it was important to them. I thus changed the speech and the email to try and make it more clear that I value their unique and expert knowledge and that I would share a report about my findings once I was done.

Ultimately the most successful recruitment is usually though your own contacts. Over the past year I have tried to build-up contacts in the Montréal UA community and thus could ask some of them directly (by email, by phone, or in person) to fill out the survey with me, or refer me to other people who could do it with me. Both of my field assistants (which I will talk about later) also have good contacts in the Montreal community. Having mutual trust is really key in getting people to take time out of their busy schedules to help you with a survey. I also systematically ask people I survey about other people I could contact, which isn’t as close of a trust relationship than existing contacts, but much better than a “cold call”.

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