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How Can We Collect Critical Data During the COVID-19 Pandemic?

March 24, 2020

“We have therefore made the assessment that COVID-19 can be characterized as a pandemic.” With these words on March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Director-General, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreysus, declared the novel coronavirus to be a critical global threat. Since then, there have been significant disruptions to our daily lives, with many cities and towns declaring major closures or issuing shelter-in-place orders. Those who can are largely working from home, with many offices shuttered or operating with minimal essential staff. Abt Associates has taken similar measures to protect the safety of our workers. For those of us who work to supply policy- and decision-makers with data, insights, and guidance, however, these events raise a critical question: Within the new “distributed” work environment, how can we continue collecting information that’s needed for planning to overcome the pandemic, as well as the variety of other on-going data needs that are still mission critical?

As one of the world’s leading organizations in the collection, analysis, and dissemination of vital data and findings for federal, state, and local government officials, it is essential that we at Abt are able to move quickly and with agility. Not only do we need to maintain continuity for our current data collection, analytic, and systems support efforts, but we also have to continue providing urgent support to agencies attempting to understand the wide-ranging impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on public health, homelessness, the education of our children, food security, and the like, in addition to supporting efforts to track the prevalence of the virus itself. Hour to hour, we are working with our clients, our Institutional Review Board (IRB), and other colleagues in the field as we monitor updates from officials to inform our actions, all while taking into consideration the data quality and scientific integrity necessary for rapid response.

While the scope and impact of the pandemic is unprecedented for most of us, Abt has always planned and developed our core infrastructure and capabilities to handle natural disasters or other unforeseen disruptions in information collection. For telephone survey data collection – the “workhorse” of many complex, rapid information gathering efforts – we have four geographically dispersed call centers that operate on a single, cloud-based platform, which allows us to move studies across call centers seamlessly, enabling us to ensure continuity and expand services as needed.

Some of our call center-based interviewers, including those with multiple language capabilities, are moving to a virtual, home-based interviewing approach, which both protects their personal safety and enables us to provide continuity of service. Our systems facilitate their secure access to the survey instrument and call scheduler information while allowing supervisors to monitor their calls in real time to ensure data quality. In some cases, we have halted the work of our U.S.-based in-person survey interviewers. This includes studies for which we might normally gather information face-to-face from household members, schools, and people experiencing homelessness, and in facilities such as hospitals, nursing homes, or prisons. However, our in-person field staff has considerable expertise collecting the same types of data over the telephone and reaching out to respondents via email or text to set up survey appointments at the participants’ convenience.

In many instances, however, we are continuing data collection efforts via telephone, web, email or text. Our interviewers, systems, and protocols allow us to quickly switch to virtual approaches without major disruptions to projects.

When information may be available and accessible electronically, such as electronic health records, we are able to work with providers to access that information virtually rather than rely on on-site records extraction, and process these data remotely. There are, however, some types of studies where face-to-face interaction is required and/or the type of population is in a facility to which access is now barred (such as hospice centers, schools or prisons). In these cases, we are working closely with our clients on how best to suspend data collection until we are able to resume activities. This is done with sensitivity paid to data quality and the scientific integrity of our work.

Much of our ability to remain agile is made possible by our robust, state-of-the-art systems infrastructure. Abt’s Data Collection Platform (Abt DCP) and Analytics Computing Environment (ACE) are built on an Amazon Web Services’ (AWS) cloud-based architecture, with FISMA Moderate security. This allows us to maintain and scale our systems and capacity virtually to reach anywhere across the globe. In terms of virtual person-to-person connections, we rely on the robust Cisco WebEx system to power everything from group meetings to virtual focus groups and cognitive interviews to global webinars and training. Likewise, our experts have considerable expertise with an array of commercially available tools to facilitate remote assessments or training.

It is important to note that there are vast arrays of activities that continue without interruption even with our experts being home-based. All staff have  secure access to the tools and systems they need to continue the development and maintenance of critical areas such as the deployment of databases and information systems, websites, and information dashboards. Likewise, our AWS, cloud-based analytic platforms facilitate the continuation of statistical analyses, machine learning, natural language processing, GIS analytics, etc., without pause. This allows us to continue to work with clients in the processing, analysis, and reporting of both primary data collected by our interviewers and secondary data we may receive from clients or access virtually from other sources.

Our preparedness, agility, and robust infrastructure give us the ability to maintain important business continuity in this time of great uncertainty. As the situation on the ground continues to evolve, we will remain flexible in our approaches and methods to ensure continuity of on-going projects and as we launch new efforts to help officials and decision-makers at all levels make informed data-driven decisions.

Learn more about Abt’s insights on COVID-19.

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