Understanding the impact of COVID-19 and lockdown
On 26 March 2020 South Africa went into a hard lockdown in response to the novel coronavirus pandemic. This meant all in-person data collection activities ceased, at a time when policymakers most needed access to data to inform their decision making in an unpredictable environment. In response to this, a national consortium of 30 social science researchers from five South African universities was convened to conduct the National Income Dynamics Study – Coronavirus Rapid Mobile Survey (NIDS-CRAM). The study aims to collect, analyse and disseminate data on employment and the welfare of South Africans in light of the coronavirus pandemic and the associated national lockdowns. UCT eResearch assisted to ensure the security of this confidential data.
“Decision making is only as good as the data on which it is based,” writes Dr. Nic Spaull in his foreword and introduction to the first NIDS-CRAM report. “The local and international landscape is constantly morphing and changing in unpredictable ways making policy formulation and implementation as hard as it can possibly be.”
This is why a consortium of leading economists and researchers across the country recognised the importance of continuing data collection to monitor the South African economy throughout the various levels of lockdown. This consortium sprang into action to put together a questionnaire for telephonic interviews to be conducted on an ongoing basis during the lockdown period.
“Decision making is only as good as the data on which it is based.”
The next big challenge was how to gather a representative pool of respondents. The Southern Africa Labour and Development Research Unit (SALDRU), through which NIDS was run, received the permission of the South African Department of Planning, Monitoring and Evaluation (which owns the intellectual property of NIDS) to use the NIDS sample group for this study.
Data collection, data quality and ensuring confidentiality
Once it was agreed to use the NIDS sample, SALDRU became more heavily involved in the project, with Associate Professor Reza Daniels overseeing the SALDRU data collection and data quality team for NIDS-CRAM; headed up by data collection and data quality heads, Timothy Brophy and Kim Ingle.
The first step was narrowing down the NIDS sample to adults 18 years or older, and from there the fieldwork company began phoning respondents. Those who answered and agreed to be interviewed formed the sample group of the NIDS-CRAM. This first wave of interviews involved just over 7 000 respondents.
As the telephonic questionnaires were completed, it became necessary to conduct data quality checks. In addition to high frequency data quality assurance checks, it was agreed that secondary quality assurance checks should be done by listening to randomly selected calls to check whether the data had been transcribed correctly and that the interviewers were conducting themselves professionally.
SALDRU received ethical clearance from the University of Cape Town for NIDS-CRAM and reciprocal ethics clearance was obtained from Stellenbosch University. As part of the study’s informed consent procedure, the respondents gave permission for the calls to be recorded, but the content of the calls remained highly sensitive and confidential. Before the SALDRU team shared the NIDS-CRAM transcribed data – even with NIDS-CRAM partners – it had to be anonymised to protect the identities of the respondents.
This put the study in a conundrum. The survey is nationally representative, which means interviews are done in all 11 official languages. To conduct the data quality checks in all those languages the study chose to work with a trusted third-party contractor with a very strong team of translators, but they needed to protect the confidentiality of the data.
To deal with this issue, the SALDRU team reached out to eResearch.
“Even though the external team members all signed Protection of Personal Information (POPI) compliant non-disclosure agreements, there was still an issue of how to share the recordings with them in a secure manner to ensure this data remains confidential,” says Ingle, who worked directly with UCT eResearch on this project.
“UCT eResearch really understood the importance of having the correct security protocols in place.”
Ashley Rustin from eResearch set up a secure folder which could be accessed by the designated external team members. They worked only within that folder, so no data was to be stored locally on the devices of the contractor, and the security of the study was maintained.
“UCT eResearch really understood the importance of having the correct security protocols in place,” says Brophy. “This means the team members listening to the calls are doing so in a secure and encrypted fashion.”
The future of NIDS-CRAM
The first wave of the NIDS-CRAM survey made headlines across the country when the data was released on 15 July 2020 and played an important role in influencing policy making in government, civil society and business. The anonymised data is openly available in the DataFirst Open Data Portal. The next wave of interviews has already been completed and further waves for 2020, and even early 2021, are in the pipeline.
SALDRU looks forward to continuing to work with eResearch for all future NIDS-CRAM data production efforts.