Do you want to make life better for someone who is suffering? Maybe you want to reduce the burden of Malaria in Eastern Kenya or protect mothers from gender-based violence in the Central African Republic. Before you start collecting data, ask yourself what do you hope to achieve. What is the goal of your project?
The goal of your project shouldn’t be overly ambitious. It should take you to the next step. Once you achieve that goal, you can then use the momentum and success you created to continue forward. An organization like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation don’t start with a goal of disease eradication. First, it will start with a smaller goal like mapping disease prevalence within a country. Once that is accomplished, it can chase its more ambitious goals.
Once you have defined your goal, you will need to understand how the data you collect will help you achieve that goal. What questions do you want the data to answer? Data is useless without a purpose. Think: what can you answer with malaria prevalence data from Kilifi County, Kenya? What data can you collect to reduce birth complications in women? To get started, ask yourself specific questions like these. Understanding what questions you want answered will give value to the data you wish to collect.
The right questions can also lead you to find data that is already available. Collecting data is hard. Perhaps others have already done some of the work for you. As you are planning your data collection project, talk with others who can help you, follow experts and leading organizations, and research what has already been done in your area of interest.
Data collection efforts can take several years to complete. If you haven’t thoroughly planned out (and continue to monitor) your data collection effort, you will likely find gaps in the data and leave important questions unanswered. Set up a process to continually evaluate your plan.
Once you know what questions need to be answered, you can begin to design your project. As you do so, consider the following topics:
- What is the least you can do to achieve the project goal?
It is almost never a good idea to start big. Even the most diligent planning will fail to identify flaws and edge cases. Start as small as possible. The goal for your project doesn’t need to be the destination. Answer the questions you need answered and then continue to build off your success to achieve what you want to see happen in the world.
- Who can help your achieve the goal of your project?
You need to fill several roles (we will discuss this later). Key
roles can often be filled by people within your organization, but partners will play an important role. Be prepared to recruit them. This is especially true if you are working in Africa.
- What is the best method for collecting data?
You know what questions need to be answered. Now, how can
you most efficiently answer those questions? The most common response in the public health community is a form, but think a little deeper about the question. Meaningful data can come from anywhere. For example, you may be able to answer important postpartum questions with public social media data. Can you get a target population to respond to a SMS? Is the answer already captured in a medical record that you can access?
- Is your ambition inline with your budget?
It’s easy to be overly optimistic about what you can achieve as you plan. Fight the urge to overcommit. Recognize what aspects of your project will be a bottle neck and focus your resources around those areas that could be potentially problematic.
The time you spend planning your data collection efforts will pay dividends. A strong plan is the first step in achieving your goal as a project. Use the following form to begin your planning. Come back to it often to ensure you are on track to accomplishing your goal!