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:
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!
In response to the challenge of doing in-depth, face-to-face research during this pandemic, Empatika has been exploring alternative approaches including using remote methods. Based on our team’s initial brainstorming (which also included some sharing sessions with Pulse Lab Jakarta), trials in May, and now with partner support, Empatika has begun work on a two-phase remote qualitative research study. The study will use a flexible mix of explorative and participatory remote research tools in order to gather insights on the COVID-19 situation in Indonesia from people’s perspectives over a six-month period.
Another unique aspect of the study is that participants are families that Empatika researchers have stayed with during previous research studies (dating back to 2015!). This means that researchers are contacting people that they already have relationships with, in most cases through immersion studies where the researchers spent at least four nights living in these families’ homes and experiencing their daily lives alongside them.
Given the constantly changing conditions during this pandemic, insights directly from community members themselves can be pivotal in understanding the shifting needs and challenges during this time, including those that might be struggling the most. The study will provide in-depth stories about people’s experiences and perspectives, along with insights into how and why certain behaviours and changes are occurring. Insights like these can also help to complement or explain findings coming from other assessments (both quantitative and qualitative).
In total the study includes over 40 families across 24 districts of Indonesia (from Aceh to West Papua), mostly from rural areas but also a few living in peri urban or urban communities. For the initial stage of the study, team members contacted most families via phone calls in late May, and then again in August. This first phase was oriented as a listening phase where researchers reconnected with families and explored contextual changes and general impacts of COVID-19 (particularly from May to August), but let family members talk about the particular issues or issues that they were most interested or excited in discussing. At the end of these conversations researchers also asked for families’ consent in sharing insights from the conversations and sought their interest/willingness to participate in the next phase of the study.
Although using remote interactions, we are still keeping in mind many aspects from how we conduct immersions, including active listening, having two-way conservations, respecting people's time, and giving them space to speak and share to the extent that they are comfortable.
A few of the key insights from the first listening phase include:
After this initial phase of phone calls, in Stage Two our team will continue interactions with families over three rounds. These rounds will focus in more on particular topics (one primary topic per round) and include different, flexible sets of participatory activities and tools, such as video/photos diaries, voice diaries, photojournalism, participant-led interviews, and others. We are excited about the flexibility built into this upcoming stage and look forward to experimenting with different remote tools.
It has already been a fruitful experience to be able to get insights from across Indonesia through conversations with families that have been excited about catching up with our researchers and sharing their experiences. We hope that this study we can also show some of the additional benefits of building these types of relationships with study participants. We look forward to sharing more soon!
Along with the temporary closure of our office and a move to working remotely, the Covid-19 pandemic also forced us to pause on-going and new fieldwork, both in Indonesia and in other countries like Bangladesh and Lebanon. Since the initial pause in March, we kept monitoring the situation and of course wondering when we might be able to get back to the field? Like most organisations no doubt, these first few months were challenging, particularly as we enjoy spending time with people in the field.
Part of our initial response to the Covid situation was the creation of health and safety guidelines for our staff. Although getting back to the field was very uncertain in the first few months, these guidelines paved the way for creating an expanded set of guidelines that we could use in the case that fieldwork became possible again. And while our specialty may be immersions, with the pandemic we focused our preparations on methods that would be more feasible such as Participatory Focus Group Discussions, Informal Interviews, and Human-Centred Design workshops.
These are just some of the guidelines that researchers and teams must consider before heading to the field, and then after returning:
As travel regulations began to relax starting in July 2020 and some areas of Indonesia continued to have a relatively lower number of confirmed Covid cases, our team had an opportunity to re-start fieldwork. The first experience was a visit to Nusa Tenggara Barat for our study on post-distance cash assistance. For this fieldwork (along with subsequent studies), we introduced some safety protocols that must be observed during the fieldwork. This includes:
Although full of precautions, the fieldwork was still an exciting and enjoyable process. We were also surprised at how well people received us in the communities, despite coming from Jakarta. We’d like to think that some of the precautions we took helped people feel comfortable, and the connections that our team made back when we did the baseline survey in these communities in early March no doubt helped as well.
Following this initial fieldwork experience along with another small study on women entrepreneurship, our team had a reflection together to discuss what went well, what went less well, and about anything we should do differently for upcoming studies. One of the most challenging aspects for us as researchers was using a mask during group discussions. First, we have to talk a lot louder. It can also be hard to hear the participants sometimes, and you miss the cues that you would normally be able to get from people’s facial expressions. To help with hearing people, we found that it helped for the two facilitators to be spread out more, with each closer to one side of the group.
We also discussed how we need to be extra cautious about the activities taking too long as people may start to tire quicker or feel a little suffocated wearing a mask for a long time. The venue selection is also really important: open-air spaces are nice, but finding one without a lot of background noise is also really important and promotes a better process. This means that if possible, our team needs to be able to visit the venue first to check the space.
One of the interesting reflections during our discussion was how in some cases the extra distance between participants actually helped to reduce any unnecessary discussion between participants. We also found that visuals were still really helpful to make the interactions more engaging for participants.
All in all, it has been a very fruitful learning experience for our team and we will continue to update our guidelines as needed as the situation changes. Although many of us still miss being able to live directly with people in the field, we are adjusting and adapting to this 'new' situation and are open to other approaches during this pandemic time. Another study we recently started will be experimenting with remote qualitative research. We look forward to sharing some of the experiences from that process soon!
Want to hear directly from some of our researchers about their first experience doing fieldwork during this pandemic time? Have a look at this short clip from the field.
New Report Published! : People’s Perspectives of Emergency Multi-Purpose Cash Assistance in Central Sulawesi and West Nusa Tenggara
Following the July 2018 earthquake in West Nusa Tenggara and the September 2018 earthquake and tsunami in Central Sulawesi, UNICEF and its partners introduced Multi-purpose Cash Assistance (MPCA) programs as part of their efforts to support recovery in communities. UNICEF commissioned Empatika to understand people's experiences after these disasters, and specifically their perspectives and experiences of the MPC assistance.
For this qualitative assessment our team visited two communities each in Donggala, Palu, and Sigi in Central Sulawesi (May 2019); and two communities in North Lombok in West Nusa Tenggara (July 2019). The insights gathered from the study have helped inform learning for the Cash Working Group and its partners about best practices in MPC assistance during emergencies from the perspectives of beneficiaries.
We used a mix of participatory tools for the study including scoping immersions for context and relationship building; participatory focus group discussions (pFGDs) for exploring the study topics in-depth; and digital storytelling (DST) workshops to help enrich some of the study insights and aid the study partners in promoting continued discussions around the study topics.
During the scoping immersions and pFGDs, our team had in-depth interactions with 216 men and women in these communities, of whom 149 were recipients and 67 were non-recipients of the MPCA. Following this fieldwork, we returned to one community in Sigi and one community in North Lombok in July for conducting DST workshops with a combination of beneficiaries and non-beneficiaries.
The DST workshop in Sigi included 11 mothers along with one grandfather who is the main caregiver for his twin grandchildren. In the North Lombok community, our team conducted two workshops, one in the more central area of the community (five mothers) where we had conducted the pFGDs along with a separate workshop in one of the remote areas of the community (7 mothers) in order to include some women who face significant access issues and who did not receive the MPC assistance. Insights from the finished DST videos are included in the final report, highlighting some of the personal stories as they relate to different study topics.
View the full report or study briefs here.
Some of the key findings from this study included:
The study team also plans to return to the two communities in North Lombok once it is safer to do so to share some examples of the final study outputs and to discuss the study process from their perspectives.