Collecting Data on Sensitive Issues

Cris Sette's picture 28th February 2013 by Cris Sette

This week, at the Evaluation Conclave in Kathmandu, I learned a great deal about challenges of evaluation practices, along with methodologies available to deal with some of those challenges. 

Evaluating projects which deal with sensitive issues, such as illegal practices, stigmatized practices, personal behaviour or traumatizing events, are very difficult to manage, as is collecting data on those issues.

During the BetterEvaluation Design Clinic at Conclave, Ms. Siddhi Mankad, from Catalyst Management Services (CMS) shared how her team deals with collecting sensitive data.

To put her presentation into context, CMS was asked by Breakthrough to develop an evaluation plan for a project related to human rights and violence against women, more specifically, child marriage - an illegal practice that is unfortunately still very common in many parts of the world.

Breakthrough is about to start mass media campaigns, along with some other initiatives, in order to change attitudes and stimulate action to reduce child marriage.

But how should one collect data on such a sensitive issue? How can we ask people to talk about an illegal practice?

CMS used Polling Booth to obtain information about the practice of child marriage in communities in two Indian states.

The video below shows Ms. Siddhi explaining how her team used Polling Booth:

[Audio quality improves over time. Duration: 5 mins 30 sec]

Polling Booth allows people to respond anonymously, usually through close-ended questions (yes/no), by dropping cards into a box. It showed to be an effective method with illiterate members of the community as well.

The Catalyst Group (CMS, Swati, and Vrutti) indicates some strengths of the method: 

  • Data is quickly tabulated and results are immediately made available.
  • It acts as an ice breaker to introduce sensitive issues for discussion and is a low cost tool as materials needed to set up the polling booth are locally sourced.
  • The tool can be adapted for different community settings and demystifies research to enable literate and non-literate populations alike to participate.
  • The information generated is unbiased as each participant is allowed to think independently and provides a response that is not influenced by another person’s views

Polling Booth is one of many methods available for collecting data on sensitive issues. Examples of other methods can be found on our Collect and/or retrieve data page.

Other useful resources I would suggest are listed on our Polling Booth option page.



Image: Polling Booths, by PetroleumJelliffe on Flickr

A special thanks to this page's contributors
Operations & MEAL Manager, Oxfam International.
Oxford, United Kingdom.


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