Alifah is a research associate with Empatika and has now been doing immersion research for 8 years. First working with Empatika team members back in 2014, Alifah found her love for research, and especially immersion research. Her first study in 2014 involved researcher training and fieldwork in West Papua. “That first training was intense - Dee [Empatika’s former technical advisor] had pretty strict standards. There were a lot of specific guidelines and I thought, ‘maybe I can’t do this.’ But then in the field I enjoyed it.” Alifah says that after these first experiences the team learned to build in more flexibility to the immersion approach. Still, she admits that immersion is not for everyone. “Immersion is difficult, but would I do it again and again? Turns out yes, definitely. So there are challenges, but I don’t see them as difficulties.”
Two studies in particular have left lasting impressions on Alifah, a study on child poverty back in 2016 (before Empatika was founded as its own organization) along with the study on ‘Pathways to Adolescent Pregnancy’ which is currently wrapping up. For the child poverty study, Alifah did an immersion in Banda Aceh and lived with a family who worked as garbage collectors and lived on the edge of a landfill in a small makeshift hut. At one point, the family brought Alifah to the landfill. “Here I was, this small person suddenly in the midst of this mountain of trash. My family had bought rujak (a snack of fruit with spicy peanut sauce) and at one moment they just looked at me and started laughing. That was one time I didn't know what to say, I just tried to embrace the moment. We laughed together and ate the rujak. I also contacted this same family for the Covid study last year. Although they are poor, they have so much pride. And they consider me like part of their family."
For the Adolescent Pregnancy study, with the sensitivity of the topic Alifah was more aware that researchers must also take extra care of their own emotions. Still, there were some overwhelming moments for her when talking with some of the teenage girls. Alifah says that every afternoon, after she and Thalia [the other Empatika researcher] finished their interviews they went to the beach or bought ice cream to find some headspace, recover, and reset. “We had to try and remind ourselves that although the stories are very personal, we are just crossing paths with them for a short time.” This study was about the experiences of teenage girls becoming pregnant, and many had been forced or pressured by boys or men to sleep with them. Alifah explained that one of the hard things about hearing these stories was that many of the girls didn’t necessarily know that they shouldn’t be treated like this, or had never told anyone about these experiences. “Here is this young girl right in front of me, and she doesn't know she was being treated badly. And I’m the first to hear her story. It can feel like a bit of a burden.”
Although doing intensive research as a young woman, Alifah says that overall she faces the same challenges as any other researcher. “I've never received any discrimination because of my hijab, because I'm a woman, or I'm young.” She explained that this may be partly because the families she has lived with, along with others in these communities, are often quite protective and look out for her. “Often I’m the one that has to tell them, ‘don’t worry about me [walking around the village], I’ll be fine.’ There was one time I was in Papua and the priest was even worried about me. He said, ‘I don't know what it’s like for Muslims to pray, but do you have a place to pray at your host family's home? If there’s no space, you can pray at the church, just come by my house and ask for the key.”
According to Alifah, entering the community is the most challenging part of doing immersion research. “Once you have a family to stay with, 50% of your work is done, and the remaining 50% is just living alongside them, exploring throughout each of the next days.” Alifah says that how a team enters a community is also key to sustainability for 5 days in the field. “As researchers, we also have to realize that people may ask us a lot of questions too. They might be suspicious. But that’s natural, it’s okay, don't avoid it. Part of being a researcher for immersions is explaining what we’re doing there, why we’re interested to be there.”
One tip from Alifah as a researcher, especially for immersions, is just to work on being a good listener. "70% of our work in the field is listening. That's what I’ve learned within these eight years. If we only hear with our ears, but not with our hearts, then we aren’t listening sensitively, and the empathy will be missing.” Another tip is to be curious: “I think people who want to know a lot about something will try and look at it from multiple sides. They will always try to explore a full 360 degrees.”
In 2021, together, we have made it through another year of the pandemic. We are very grateful for the health of our team members, and for the continuing support of our partners and clients.2021 started with two new projects, one looking at knowledge about malaria and access to services in Eastern Indonesia, and another seeking to learn more about adolescent pregnancy in Central Sulawesi and West Java. Throughout the rest of the year, we saw the continuation of collaborations with partners like Quicksand and Stats4SD, and the opportunity for new partnerships (hi STBY). While continuing to support some of our long-time clients, we were able to work with new organizations like UN Women along with a private sector client. We are also very happy to have received support, as part of a piece of end-line research, to train a new team of researchers in Nepal! The year wrapped up with the finishing touches being put on three different studies, while three others were just beginning to get started. The end of the year also saw changes to our team, as we welcomed one new team member, while two of our core team members moved on to other projects.
While we hope to get back to doing fieldwork with less restrictions, the pandemic has also forced us to adapt. This has included needing to adapt with our research methods, and this experimentation (such as using adapted immersions, online training, WhatsApp conversations, photo sharing, phone and zoom interviews) has led to many important learning and lessons that we can continue to apply moving forward. Although many adjustments need to be made in the current situation, our goal is to do so while maintaining a focus on gathering in-depth, rigorous findings. And keeping our team healthy! Speaking of team, we are also lucky that we continue to have a great group of research associates in a number of countries, especially in Indonesia where some have been with us from the very beginning. Thanks for all of your continued hard work!
It’s 2022 - let’s keep on together.
For our COVID-19 Remote Insights Gathering Study, we utilized our pre-existing relationships with families and other community members from past studies. Over the nine-month study period (May 2020–Feb 2021), families shared their experiences during this ongoing pandemic, which included sharing media like photos and screenshots with our researchers. As a thank you to these families, particularly since we weren’t able to meet them in person, and as part of ensuring a feedback loop, we created digital postcards to share back with families. Along with a cover including a family photo from the previous study the family participated in when available, the postcards include an example how one of the photos shared by the family was used in the report, along with an example of their contribution to the study findings.
This postcard here is for a family in Timor that participated in the study. Our researcher, Nafis, initially met and stayed with this family during our 2020 study on maternal, infant, and adolescent health and nutrition. We are grateful not only for the contributions from this family and the over 40 other families across Indonesia which have helped us to understand the impacts of COVID-19, but also for the opportunity to reconnect and develop relationships in a time when connections have been made more difficult.
The idea for these postcards came partly out of the sharing sessions our team had with Pulse Lab Jakarta in 2020 about doing remote research. As part of these discussions, we talked about how study participants often do not get to see, or are not informed about, final study products or outcomes. Our teams agreed that it is important to try to find ways to provide some kind of feedback to study participants, even when there isn’t budget provided for such activities.
This post is a reflection on the implementation of our remote COVID-19 insights in Indonesia study based on reflections with the team of researchers (13 researchers including 8 Empatika core team members).
Conducting remote research over nine months and experimenting with new tools was a great opportunity for us and our researchers. However, it was not without challenges. As many of the study families live in rural or even remote areas, technical issues such as phone or internet signal were constant challenges. These challenges also made using some of the tools like photo sharing more difficult, and made it harder for researchers to find good times for contacting families. Using remote approaches also made it more difficult to maintain consistent contact with families and other community members, particularly as many people could be quite busy with their own activities throughout the day. As many researchers were interacting with multiple families during the study, often from different communities, this sometimes made scheduling and maintaining consistent contact all the more difficult.
We were also learning as we went along about the best communication strategies for staying engaged with families throughout the study period. While strategies like texting almost everyday worked well with some families, with other families this contributed to them getting tired with some of the discussion. We also found that some families got tired talking about some of the more specific study issues such as health, especially if they didn’t consider these issues to be priorities in their day-to-day lives. Some family members would say things like, ‘You’re asking about this again?’ We needed to continue to adapt and adjust based on the situation (not so different from being in the field). Still, some researchers were able to get even closer to their families through this study process. And for families that researchers hadn’t been in touch with recently (before the study started), all appreciated getting to reconnect.
Certainly one of the lessons for us as researchers was that it was important to be flexible with our communication style, strategies, and timing. We learned that due to the challenges of scheduling, this meant that we needed to be ready to have conversations with families, or to be contacted by them, at almost any time of the day. This could be quite tiring (for example, receiving phone calls late in the evening, or while cooking dinner), and so we also had to learn how to manage our own stamina and energy throughout the study process. And although we did make it to the end of the study, there is certainly still much for us to learn on managing remote research processes.
Although phone signal and internal availability did present challenges with many families, compared to just a few years ago this has greatly improved and most of the participating families now have at least one smartphone. Utilizing tools such as photo and video sharing, screenshots, group chats, and video calls enabled both researchers and participants to be more creative in exploring and sharing stories. Around 33 of the 45 families involved in the study shared photos with their researcher! A mother in Lombok Timur was inspired by one of the prompt exercises and sent the researcher over 10 videos of her talking with children and other mothers about different topics related to the study. Not only did this mother feel that topics like education and health were important, she thought that making the videos was a fun thing to do. Some researchers were able to create WhatsApp groups with university students, while one researcher, after gaining consent, was able to join an existing WhatsApp group of parents and hear about their experiences with distance learning. New approaches like these inspired other researchers and reiterate the need for us to be creative and constantly innovating.
Still, what many of our researchers really wanted after finishing this study was an opportunity to get back to doing some face-to-face research! Up until the pandemic, our work has focused primarily on immersion research, and so many of us are at heart field researchers. Doing fieldwork is how we get refreshed and re-motivated, so we hope that the pandemic situation will continue to improve. There’s just no substitute for an in-person experience (this is one reason why you may have noticed that we have continued to try to include some fieldwork on current studies), although we know that we have to be flexible, especially now. We also want to keep experimenting with other research tools since, for example, some of the tools we used remotely for this study could also complement in-person approaches to research.
When doing immersions, often one of the best but also bittersweet moments is when we are leaving and have to ‘pamit’ and say goodbye. Families often ask us, ‘When will you come visit again’? During this remote study, we also faced this difficult question, and just like in-person, all we could do is say that although we don’t know when, we hope to have a chance to visit again sometime. If we’re able to get through this pandemic and actually have this opportunity with any of these families, it will probably now be an even sweeter experience.
We are very thankful for the relationships with the participating families and appreciate all of the time families gave as part of this study. We are also grateful for the opportunity to conduct this study and to be able to share these families’ perspectives and experiences during this pandemic.
This study is a follow-up to our 2019 study, working with UNICEF, on post-disaster Multi-Purpose Cash Assistance (MPCA) in Central Sulawesi and North Lombok. The study built on the tools and learning from the 2019 study while also adding baseline and endline components along with a survey to complement the qualitative insights. The MPCA program in East Lombok provided cash assistance in nine villages to pregnant women and families with children under 7 years of age. The study explored how people’s livelihoods were affected by the 2018 earthquake, along with COVID-19, how people perceived the MPCA assistance including the assistance process and mechanism, how families spent the money, and the impacts that it had on their lives.
UNICEF initiated the study as part of ongoing learning about the use of cash in emergencies and more generally in an effort to strengthen and promote Adaptive Social Protection in Indonesia. As the COVID-19 pandemic hit Indonesia right as the first disbursements were starting in some of the East Lombok communities, this also provided an opportunity to more directly compare MPCA beneficiary experiences to those receiving the government’s COVID-19-related social assistance.
The arrival of COVID-19 also meant that we had to adjust the study methodology from our initial plan to help ensure the safety for both study participants and our research team. Following an initial pause in the fieldwork, our team had discussions with the UNICEF team in Jakarta, UNICEF field staff, and village leaders in East Lombok in July of 2020 about the feasibility of re-starting the fieldwork (MPCA disbursements were also paused from April to mid-July). At this point we also developed our COVID-19 field protocols and after receiving the go-ahead from UNICEF and the East Lombok government, our research team took to the field for what would be Empatika’s first experience conducting fieldwork during the pandemic (you can read more about these initial experiences in this post).
Check out the full report and research brief on the Our Work page.
It was March 2020 when COVID-19 began to turn the world upside down. I came home early from Bangladesh, when we had an on-going research project that was stopped immediately. This was followed by a mandatory 21 days of self-quarantine all alone in my apartment. It was a difficult situation for everyone.
While I was stuck in quarantine, surprisingly my ‘dad’ from one of our previous immersion studies in West Sumatra texted me, “Hey Riz, how are you? I saw the news about the COVID situation in Jakarta and we worry about you...” I did not realise that a text can be very powerful during those stressful times. I called him back. That day we spent hours talking about the condition both in Jakarta and in his village, and we wished for each other's safety.
When Empatika then decided that we wanted researchers to try and check-in with families from previous studies, I was more than happy to keep in touch with this family in Pasaman along with contacting some of my other previous study families. Through these initial conversations Empatika then had an opportunity to continue these check-ins through a full longitudinal study. Along with over 10 other Empatika researchers, we would each stay in touch with families from all over Indonesia throughout the first year of the pandemic. This post is a sample of some of the insights and a taste of the connections we developed.
(Empatika senior researcher Rizqan, who interacted with three families in three different provinces as part of this study)
Keeping in Touch with People's Experiences of the COVID-19 Pandemic
Our longitudinal remote insights gathering study finished its last round, focused on livelihoods and social assistance, in February 2021. From the insights gained over the nine month study period we produced three in-depth briefs and a summary brief, in addition to an initial brief from the early listening stage of the study and are hoping to be able to share these reports soon! This study aims to bring faces, stories, and highlight local perspectives into how families and other people across Indonesia have been dealing with changes and uncertainty during the pandemic, in both urban and rural contexts. The pandemic situation also gave us an opportunity for us to experiment with remote approaches and tools to qualitative research. Utilising the pre-existing relationships that Empatika researchers have with a variety of families across Indonesia, the study included a total of 45 families in 23 districts of Indonesia*. Over the study period families have shared their ongoing stories.
Built on trust, experimenting with remote tools
Our researchers knew the study participant families from previous immersion and other qualitative studies conducted between 2015 to 2020 when we had the opportunity to spend time with families in their own homes and their communities. This meant good existing rapport and relationships between researchers and families which provided a basis for open and trusted interactions. It also meant that researchers were familiar with the different contexts of these communities.
During the study, researchers made regular phone calls, texts, and had other remote interactions with families over the study period. Based on families' main concerns from the listening phase of the study, over the following three rounds of data collection we conversed about livelihoods and social assistance; education (including learning and social lives of children); and health. We complemented phone conversations and text messaging with other data gathering tools—our first experience using remote tools—including photo, audio and video sharing; group chats and discussions; and visual and story prompts. For example, texting with families through Whatsapp, we shared photos related to COVID-19 including from our own lives to ignite conversations and asked them to send back photos to us about the situation in their communities. With university students from different study locations, a few researchers formed a WhatsApp group to discuss together their multiple experiences and the challenges that they are facing during this pandemic. Some families recorded their own voice notes or videos from the prompt questions we provided. These tools were guided by thematic areas of conversations which were tailored and updated to each in-depth topic focus for each round of the study.
To situate the study insights, for the final summary brief we also prepared a timeline (shown below) which shows the context and influence of some of the policy responses of the Government of Indonesia alongside people’s concerns and changes that were happening in the study communities over the study period. These government responses included mobility and travel restrictions or suspensions, the closure of public services such as schools, village-level health facilities and posyandu sessions, along with the disbursement of emergency social assistance. Perceptions about these policies were also discussed with families throughout the study.
The following are some of the key insights from the study across the three primary topics (you can view the full briefs from this study on Our work page) :
Livelihoods and Social Assistance
Empatika kicked off 2021 with a study about malaria programs in Eastern Indonesia, focusing on the social factors that influence how people access malaria prevention and treatment services. Even though malaria programs have been delivered nationwide since 1959, with a more recent target to achieve malaria-free status by 2030, malaria cases remain high especially in the eastern part of Indonesia. This study aims to provide deeper insights and a better understanding of community experience in order to strengthen existing malaria interventions, particularly communication strategies that can encourage positive behaviour in using malaria prevention-related services.
For this study, the Empatika team visited four districts including Southwest Sumba, NTT; Mimika and Jayapura, Papua; and Manokwari, West Papua. Within each district, our team spent time in two different communities.
The study was carried out in two stages including adapted immersions along with follow-up People Driven Design (PDD) workshops. The first stage using adapted immersions was done in mid-January—the method was adjusted from Empatika’s typical immersion approach to mitigate COVID-19 risks to both participants and researchers. For these adapted immersions, researchers visited communities from morning until evening over a period of days but spent nights at a guesthouse close to the community rather than staying with families. During this stage, we focused on understanding the local context and people’s behaviour in relation to malaria prevention and treatment.
The second stage included People Driven Design (PDD) workshops in communities that took place in early March. PDD is an approach based on the principles of human-centred design with an emphasis on directly engaging people in identifying their own behaviour challenges, setting goals, and developing their own ideas to encourage positive behaviour change. For these workshops we focused on one community each across the four districts. Building on the rapport built throughout the adapted immersions, Empatika researchers held interactive discussions with a group of community members and health providers over a period of five days. We discussed insights from the adapted immersions including people’s thoughts about their priorities, facilitated them to brainstorm, develop and try out local solutions that could encourage positive behaviour change related to accessing malaria treatment and prevention.
Through the PDD process, we were very encouraged by community members and health providers’ enthusiasm to promote positive behaviours in their communities. Currently, the behaviour change solutions that they co-designed continue to be trialed, promoted and refined by the community members and health providers. We hope this study as well as the groups’ local solutions can give valuable feedback to improving malaria programs in the future.
We hope to be able to share some of the study's outputs in the next few months.
One of the key topics highlighted in our Longitudinal Remote Insights Gathering study on Children and Their Families’ Experiences during the COVID-19 Pandemic was the challenges for children’s learning and education. This included the many struggles faced by students, teachers, and parents in shifting to different types of ‘distance learning’ and the education system’s overall lack of preparedness for implementing distance or digital learning on a larger or long-term scale.
Empatika was excited to be able to explore some of the gaps of the digital learning situation in more detail in a new study working once again as the local partner in Indonesia with Quicksand Design Studio (our second recent collaboration). This situational analysis study aims to provide insights on the digital learning landscape in Indonesia, using an equity lens to highlight key disparities that exist among different regions and socio-economic backgrounds. We combined secondary research, expert interviews with people from the Ministry of Education and Culture and EduTech Companies (such as Zenius and Sekolahmu), as well as virtual interviews with teachers, students, and parents from Papua, East Java, West Sulawesi, Central Sulawesi, East Nusa Tenggara, Maluku, and West Java. The report provides an overview of the access to and quality of digital learning along with insights on internet connectivity and affordability; the availability of digital learning devices; the relevance and content of digital platforms; and the digital skills of students and teachers.
Some of the insights from the study include:
Check out the full report here.
Let's see, was there anything special about 2020?
What a year! In addition to the very extraordinary Covid situation, our team added 3 new members in 2020, started on our very first piece of remote research, and began working with a number of new partners. Overall, we are very grateful that we have been able to continue working and that our team has remained largely healthy :-).
We started working from home in the middle of March and our projects were put on hold soon afterward. Two of these were eventually cancelled, although we were lucky that for one of these we had already done enough of the fieldwork that we were still able to write up some findings for the client. After a few weeks of feeling a bit stuck and unsure, we were able to get moving again with some internal training and then by starting to compile Covid-relevant insights from our previous studies in Indonesia and Uganda.
As we looked to expand on these initial insights in Indonesia by reaching out to previous study families, we discussed possibilities that eventually resulted in a series of learning discussions with the Pulse Lab Jakarta team. We then received support from a client to turn our outreach with families about the impacts of Covid into a full study that would be conducted remotely over a period of over six months (this will be finishing up next month).
It was around this time that we also began developing Covid-19 field safety protocols and standards as we prepared for the possibility of being able to do some fieldwork again. As some of our projects that had gone on hold began to re-start their activities in July, we had our first trial at conducting fieldwork during the pandemic as part of a study in East Lombok. Since that experience, we have continued to conduct some fieldwork while also working on other remote research.
Along with the collaborations with our clients and teams like Pulse Lab, 2020 also brought possibilities with new partners like Quicksand. We appreciate the continued optimism and support from partners like these along with the spirit and energy of everyone in our team including our research associates.
We hope that you and those close to you stay healthy, and we look forward to a 2021 that will hopefully bring back a greater sense of normalcy before too long.
As part of developing COVID-19 related protocols and brainstorming internally for how to adjust and adapt to the current situation, our team also had the opportunity to brainstorm with the Pulse Lab Jakarta (PLJ) team during a series of sharing sessions beginning in June of this year. We have collaborated with PLJ on previous studies including a study on Rural to Urban Migration in Indonesia. One of the things we have always liked about PLJ is that while a lot of their work is cutting-edge, they maintain an emphasis on making data work for people, sharing people’s stories and presenting data and insights in interesting and easily digestible ways.
The initial idea for the sharing sessions was to explore how to approach conducting quality qualitative research remotely, especially for more remote areas and/or with people who might have more limited access to technology or more limited experience in using it. Through these sharing sessions we hoped to develop up-to-date and contextualized approaches for doing research remotely and how to incorporate different tools and technologies in the process.
The sharing sessions were done over an initial four week period, with one session each week facilitated by PLJ. In the first session we discussed some of the possible methods that can be used for remote research that we use as a basis for the upcoming sessions. Based on some of the possible remote work we anticipated doing, we narrowed down the discussion to: Phone Interviews; Photo/Video elicitation; and Diaries.
Next we talked about what aspects we need to consider when using these methods (or any others). This included identifying the participants, the length/duration for the data collection, best practices for approaching participants, ensuring a 'safe space' for participants and other considerations such as ethics.
The next week, we dove into the three methods to try and see what kinds of challenges we may face during the research process, particularly when working with people in more rural areas as we often do for our studies. Some of the challenges we highlighted included:
After identifying these challenges, we discussed possible ways that we can tackle them if we face them during research, and any ways that we could avoid them with better prep or strategies.
The final of the first four sessions we framed around designing a remote study (using the same three methods) looking at Covid-19 impacts and social assistance. For this we spent time identifying some of the possible research questions, discussing what are the insights we are looking for and trying to contextualize the methods. For contextualizing the methods, we discussed technology (what kind of media or platform can be appropriately used, network coverage, etc.); personality (how to ensure participants to feel safe, what kind of communication approach, etc), and time (consent, when is the best time to contact, how to arrange the schedule, etc) considerations. For each item we tried to emphasize putting participants first.
All in all, these sessions were an exciting learning experience. Certainly from our end, our team left the sessions inspired and they helped broaden our understanding of the possibilities and considerations for remote research. And like any research methods, it will be a continuous learning process!
After these sharing sessions, each organization was also able to test out many of the things we discussed during our own respective remote research studies. For Empatika, we officially started our Covid-19 Remote Qualitative Insights Gathering study for UNICEF in July and are currently working on the second of three rounds in this longitudinal remote study (learn more below or click here). For PLJ, they spent much of October and early November working on a remote mixed methods study with UN Women and Gojek on ‘Leveraging Digitalization to Cope with COVID-19: An Indonesian case study on women-owned micro and small businesses’ where they worked with small/micro business owners in Jakarta and West Java (see their case study report here).
In mid-November, our teams then came together again for a follow-up session where we were able to share some of our experiences with remote research so far. We talked about what surprised each of us so far with carrying out remote research, what were the biggest challenges we’ve faced, and what were our lessons learned.
PLJ also found that from the client side, it seemed that there was a greater expectation that the research could be conducted much quicker than a regular study since interactions were just done remotely (and our Empatika team would agree that remote interactions does not necessarily equal faster/easier data collection).
From the Empatika side, our team found that carrying out research remotely is much more time consuming and draining (physically and mentally) than most of us anticipated. Some of the more specific challenges included:
In the end, we found that we’ve learned a lot through carrying out remote research and it has shown us that there are even more possibilities for the tools/methods available to us, and that these possibilities could also include mixing both remote and direct interactions with participants. Still, it’s clear that we’re still very much a team that likes to be in the field and interacting with people face-to-face. Hopefully the end of this pandemic will be in sight soon!