The Center for Survey Research (CSR), RCHSS, Academia Sinica, with which I am affiliated, has been regularly conducting academic surveys for over two decades, mostly in-person and telephone interviews. Each is planned ahead for two to four months, depending on its mode and scale. Like in other countries, the scheduled surveys here in 2020 have been affected by COVID-19. Fortunately, there has been no lockdown or stay-at-home restrictions in Taiwan, but out of an abundance of caution, the practices of fieldwork for CATI and CAPI in CSR have had to be adjusted to reduce the risk to interviewers and respondents.
COVID-19 has raised concerns in Taiwan since late January 2020, when the demand for face masks increased rapidly to prevent droplet infection. The Central Epidemic Command Center (CECC) started hosting a live-streamed daily press conference when the first confirmed COVID-19 case appeared. The CECC soon announced guidelines on epidemic prevention measures for public transport, public gatherings, schools and academic institutions, and the scale of these measures has been enlarged gradually. As the situation in Taiwan improved, the anti-epidemic measures have been relaxed slowly since April 30, while retaining minimal restrictions. During this period, various anti-epidemic strategies have been taken in response to different phases of the COVID-19 outbreak, in particular for in-person interviews and the in-house CATI lab.
The Panel Study of Family Dynamics, PSFD, started its wave-18 data collection January 9 using CAPI, and was affected immediately by the anti-epidemic measures. The original fieldwork period was two months but was extended to four. In order to reduce the cost of in-person interviews, CAWI and virtual (face-to-face video) interviews for some respondents had originally been planned for the wave 18 in 2020. PSFD has assigned some of its respondents to online mode starting from 2018 based on the availability of email addresses and their willingness to participate in online surveys. The proportion of the respondents via online mode has been further enlarged in 2020. Mode switching between CAPI and CAWI is allowed for respondents assigned to the online mode before the questionnaire is completed. In addition, PSFD had planned 18 virtual interviews in 2020 for respondents who had the equipment and were willing to do so. This plan seems to have arrived with perfect timing, and Line, which is a popular communication application for mobile devices in Taiwan, has been used by most interviewers. However, the virtual mode did not work as well as expected, due to the quality of the internet connections and equipment. Still, more than half of the interviews remained in CAPI mode, requiring adjustment of fieldwork in response to the COVID-19 situation.
In early March, CSR took the following strategies: 1) encouraging the conducting of interviews in an open space near the respondent’s residence; 2) providing interviewers sanitizer for disinfection when meeting in person with respondents; 3) planning more virtual interviews of good quality for future needs. The strategies changed in late March due to enhanced epidemic prevention measures in the nation. All in-person interviews have been suspended since March 25. Roughly 20% of the respondents had not been interviewed in person at that time. They were contacted by phone to see if they were willing to switch to CAWI, or if they preferred to postpone the interviews until the COVID-19 situation had calmed down. Those who did not agree to have an in-person interview or to fill out an online survey were coded as refusal. Another in-person panel survey, originally scheduled in May, was postponed to June, and the recruitment of new CAPI interviewers in April has been suspended, with the use of experienced interviewers as the backup plan.
Since the number of confirmed cases was expected to rise, we anticipated reaching more people via landlines for telephone interviews, because many people preferred to stay at home after work or school during the crisis. Our CATI interviewers had the same preference as well. It therefore became difficult to have enough interviewers in the early stage of the outbreak. In order to keep the ongoing survey running, additional sanitation measures were applied to all the equipment in the CATI lab to provide a safe working environment. Measurement of body temperature and hand sanitation were required before entering the CATI lab. All doors and windows were open for air ventilation. Empty seats were arranged between CATI stations to follow guidelines on social distancing. Each interviewer was equipped with sanitizer for hands and headphones when needed. All other CATI surveys scheduled in the end of June or later have been postponed, and their expected days of duration extended due to the possibility of fewer interviewers. The recruitment of new CATI interviewers in late March was suspended.
As the COVID-19 situation improved and life gradually returned to normal in May, guidelines on epidemic prevention were renewed, stipulating that people should still maintain personal anti-epidemic measures and go out with confidence, yet caution. The relaxation of epidemic control measures was further expanded in early June. Again, the CSR took corresponding strategies for the fieldwork of CAPI and CATI. For PSFD, in-person interviews using CAPI were resumed in late April, while an additional 16 in-person interviews were switched to the virtual mode. As a result, the questionnaires for PSFD were completed by about 78.5% of CAPI respondents (up from 88.0% in the previous wave 2018) and 89.3% of CAWI respondents (down from 69.0% in 2018), when calculating the number of completed questionnaires divided by the number of distributed ones. Another CAPI survey, postponed to June, has started data collection as scheduled. Personal anti-epidemic measures remain required for all interviewers, namely sanitizing one’s hands, wearing a face mask, and maintaining physical distance.
Two of the anti-epidemic measures in the CATI lab have been relaxed. Each interviewer has now been assigned a designated station, leaving no empty seats in between. The recruitment and training of new CATI interviewers have resumed. The other measures remain and the postponed CATI surveys have been conducted as scheduled, with fewer interviewers than normal. The CATI survey conducted during the early stage of the outbreak is a longitudinal survey project. Compared to the previous year, the average number of interviewers per day dropped to a quarter in 2020, and it took four more days to complete the expected 1,200 interviews.
Although the global pandemic is not over yet, there are some issues to think about now to get all of us prepared, if we encounter similar events in the future. Strategies corresponding to national anti-epidemic measures have to come out quickly. There are also needs to allow extra time and personnel for fieldwork, to prepare for switching modes of data collection when available, and to expect lower response rates and more refusals.
Online surveying is definitely a choice, if all conditions are suitable, when people have to stay at home. For in-person interviews, the virtual mode seems to be an alternative for in-person interviews in response to the global pandemic nowadays. It has all the pros and cons of CAPI and meets the requirement of physical distancing, except that the respondents need to hold their devices for the whole time, and may or may not show their faces during the interview. Support from the fieldwork staff and logistics is the key to success, because unplanned mixed-mode surveying and delays in fieldwork often lead to chaos. Among all the practices of fieldwork, how to reach respondents is a big challenge during an epidemic. PSFD is a panel study, so we were able to contact respondents in advance. Cross-sectional surveys using in-person interviews may not have this option, and the response rates could drop rapidly. Experience sharing of this kind will benefit all of us.
Special thanks to the CSR staff, especially Meng-Pei Chang and Fang-Yu Su.
Crucial policies for combating COVID-19, Ministry of Health and Welfare, Taiwan: https://covid19.mohw.gov.tw/en/sp-timeline0-206.html