What Does the Future of Survey Research Look Like?

-NRC Q&A-

NRC President Tom Miller envisions the future of survey research for local governments.

We are living in an exciting and disruptive time for survey research. Staying on the cutting-edge requires regular evaluation of current and proposed methods and practices. Innovators must understand the ever-evolving technologies and tools that impact surveys. Researchers must study changes in the way people interact with both questionnaires and reports. There are countless subtle factors to consider that often seem trivial but may sway results by large margins. It takes an expert to identify and track pivotal factors, and to envision their likely effects. National Research Center, Inc. (NRC) President Tom Miller has a knack for accurately predicting the next step in survey research. In this NRC Q&A video, Miller describes the industry’s current climate and what local governments can expect for the future of survey research.

The use of phone surveys will continue to decline.

Historically, most community surveys were conducted by phone. People responded better to a convenient phone call than a stranger knocking on their door. Then as cell phones (always on hand), identity theft and unwanted calls became the norm, unknown numbers began to feel intrusive. Today, few people will pick up the phone for a number they don’t recognize. So surveys sent by mail have become more popular because more residents respond, and they can complete the survey at their own convenience.

Sound scientific methods will be even more important.

Like dolphins are to foxes, community surveys and political polls are two completely different animals. But because surveys and polls fall under the same social-science umbrella, some people mistake the two. So it’s important to understand that public perceptions of polls can affect perceptions of surveys.

The 2016 US election poll results turned out to be wrong. Even Donald Trump’s own pollsters were shocked when he took the presidency. This shook the public’s confidence in polling data. A study by the American Association for Public Opinion Research (AAPOR) revealed a number of problems with these election polls and a lack of scientific rigor. The polls failed to account for factors such as demographic differences between those who responded and the known makeup of the whole country. The polls were conducted by phone interviews, and analysts did not consider how this mode could color the responses given.

Because of polling problems like this, surveys must place higher value on sound research methods to retain trust. This also means local governments will more often look to scientific surveys – rather than polls – to produce reliable data on community quality of life and service delivery.

Self-administered surveys will be preferred.

When the survey’s goal is to give the most precise results possible, mode matters. Surveys taken alone by mail and web yield more candid responses than surveys taken from an interviewer over the phone. Why is that? Americans, especially, tend to be eager to please. With phone interviews, people often will answer what they think the other person wants to hear rather than what they really feel. So ratings from phone surveys skew more positive, but they are not more accurate than self-administered surveys. And since you don’t have to pay for interviewers, self-administered surveys are more cost effective.

For the sake of accuracy and money, the future will prefer modes where respondents take the survey on their own.

The future of survey research is online, and methods will evolve.

Surveys are already being conducted online. Even NRC includes an additional web survey, open to all residents, in the basic service of The National Community Survey (The NCSÔ). Web surveys are convenient, self-administered, and fairly inexpensive. In the long term, online surveys will become even more popular.

The trouble is in finding the best ways to make web surveys scientific. Some variables are much harder to control for opt-in web surveys than for randomly-sampled mail surveys. Opt-in web surveys struggle to accurately reflect the perspectives of the entire community. This is because those who volunteer to take the survey may trend to a certain opinion or agenda, while the silent majority may feel very differently.

NRC and other researchers are testing ways to retain scientific validity with online surveys. Currently, the industry-standard and most preferred mode to conduct a scientific survey is by mail. But as researchers and analysts come to consensus on the best ways to advance their methods, the future of scientific surveys may very well be online.

Local governments will make big decisions based on big data.

Access to information is a boon of the Digital Age. Local governments can more easily gather more data from more sources than ever before. Leaders can consider their community survey results along with relevant secondary data from other sources. Uniform crime reports, for example, can give context to how residents rate safety in their city.

The problem is, so much information is overwhelming, and most data are acquired and reported separately. But now, Artificial Intelligence (AI) systems are being developed to reign it all in. Online dashboards and reports can now make data interactive, so it is easier to compare points in different ways. As these tools become more commonplace, affordable and user-friendly, evidence-based decision-making will be easier in the future.

 

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