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Using mobile phone surveys to track resilience and post-disaster recovery: A how-to guide

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Johannes von Engelhardt and Lindsey Jones

1. Introduction

Close to 70% of the world’s population use mobile phones (GSMA, 2019). Around the world, increasing access to mobile technologies is making it easier (and cheaper) to gather information about people’s lives and livelihoods, allowing it to inform development and humanitarian activities. As such, use of mobile phone surveys is becoming an ever-popular way of carrying out household survey data in developing countries, increasingly complementing traditional face-to-face interviews and, in some cases, even replacing them entirely (Dabalen et al., 2016; Hoogeveen et al., 2014; Demombynes et al., 2013; Jones et al., 2018; Etang et al., 2015).
One of the many opportunities for mobile surveys to support the development sector comes in tracking resilience and post-disaster recovery. Collecting information in disaster-affected regions is often dangerous, costly and time consuming. This is where mobile surveys have a real advantage: offering cheaper ways of remotely contacting individuals, often in near-real-time. Mobile surveys remove many of the logistical and safety challenges of coordinating large household survey exercises (which are crucial for fragile and conflict affected areas). They can also make it much easier to reach people who are on the move, such as pastoral communities or those fleeing a shock-event.
The growth in popularity of mobile phone surveys, for both Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E) and research efforts, has led to a rise in studies dealing with the methodological and logistical questions facing this new form of applied social research (Dabalen et al., 2016; Gibson et al., 2017; Greenleaf et al., 2017;
L’Engle et al., 2017; Mahfoud et al., 2015; Leo et al., 2015). Many of these insights empirically build on the experiences and lessons from recent large-scale mobile phone surveys. Prominent examples include the World Banks’s Listening to Africa (2017) and Listening to Central America initiatives (Ballivian et al., 2015), as well as the World Food Programme (WFP)’s numerous mobile Vulnerability Analysis and Mapping (mVAM) projects (2019).
In this how-to guide, we highlight the advantages and opportunities presented by mobile surveys in collecting information on post-disaster recovery and resilience in developing countries. Recognising the growing political interest in resilience-building, we target our guide specifically at the development and humanitarian actors tasked with monitoring and evaluating resilience outcomes (either for their own projects or those of others).
In particular, we expect this guide will be helpful to those considering using phone surveys in their work, but unfamiliar with the pros and cons of this relatively novel mode of data collection. We base our insights on our first-hand experiences from the Building Resilience and Adaptation to Climate Extremes and Disasters (BRACED) programme – which ran a high-frequency mobile phone survey in Myanmar between 2017 and 2019 – as well as our review of the wider literature.

In particular, we cover the following:

• what to consider before setting-up a phone survey

• options for how it can be conducted

• how to tailor phone surveys to tracking resilience or post-disaster recovery

• tips and tricks for successful delivery.

Above all, we hope this guide will help others decide whether mobile phone surveys could be of use to them, whether in the context of M&E or other forms of research. Furthermore, we hope it will inspire others to carry out, document and share their experiences in conducting remote surveys for tracking resilience and post-disaster recovery.