data collection on mobile devices

Stories from the Field: TCEC Staff Assist with Data Collection

As the observations for the End Commercial Tobacco Campaign wrap up, TCEC staff had the chance to assist Local Lead Agencies with their data collections. As always, TCEC is happy to help, and when we do we like to write up our experience. This time around, Jorge Andrews and Danielle Lippert went out in the summer heat and put their evaluator skills to the test. Here are their stories:

Jorge's Data Collection Experience  

When a Southern California LLA asked for help with data collection, I was met with an opportunity I couldn’t pass up. I went in mindful that I am here to help and do the best job I could in this community. My first day in the field, I felt rusty. The way I maneuvered around a store with my mobile device in hand felt like a Star Trek character on an away mission. I purposely chose a route with larger stores just to get comfortable being outside of the office (it has been since March 2020 that we have been kept indoors!) I wandered around expecting to be questioned as to who I was and what I was doing there, but no one seemed to notice anything. Things at first felt mechanical and somewhat detached, but the more surveys I did, the more comfortable I felt.  

It was odd. Even though I was part of the team that tested the survey, trained data collection teams on the protocols of the survey, and saw the surveys dozens of times before, being in the field felt so different. The data aren’t just staring at me in numbers and letters in a spreadsheet on my screen, the data was a real tangible thing all around me. 

Eventually, the smaller convenience stores had to be done as well. These were very different environments from the larger stores. In larger stores, no one seemed to notice a person walking around staring at his phone, but in a small convenience store, this behavior was noticed and appeared to put clerks on edge. After seeing me with a mobile device, some store owners would ask questions, usually, “What are you doing here?” sometimes followed by “Are you going to buy something?”  

After a couple of interactions like this, I tried a different approach. At the next small retailer, I kept my phone down when I walked in. The survey was still in my hand, but I kept the device at my side, not in front of my face.  I entered the store, I smiled and said hello, I looked around, and I even made conversation whenever it felt appropriate.  I noticed that this put the store clerks, owners, and myself more at ease.  Making that initial connection made the survey experience easier. It was almost as if putting my phone down brought down an invisible barrier and allowed a human moment to occur. Once using this approach, asking clerks for the price of tobacco became easier, which was great, most stores visited kept their tobacco products behind the checkout area and were not easily visible.  

I know it might sound like a cliché, but sometimes the tools we use to connect with people can disconnect us from the people directly around us.  

Danielle's Data Collection Experience  

During my recent experience getting out into the field and assisting some LLAs with their retail observation data collection, I couldn’t help but reflect on one tenet of data collection that TCEC often harps about: engage community members to help collect data. The thing is, I know this isn’t always feasible.  Take the situation I found myself in:  the LLA simply doesn’t have the staff to collect data because there is only one staff member. So here I am doing essentially what we tell program staff NOT to do: coming into a community as an outsider, ready to collect their data. But maybe this didn’t end up being such a bad thing in this case.    

I was hyper-aware of my visitor status and found myself going out of my way to ingratiate myself to retailer staff and owners. I would walk in and make eye contact and greet them before they had a chance to greet me. I would often throw out some banal but friendly comment like “wow, it is hot today!” as I made my way into the store. It was hot that day so I would buy water and ask for the restroom when I needed it before I started my survey. I did all of this to make the retailer more comfortable with me but the funny thing is, it all made me feel way more comfortable during the data collection.    

I know for some of us, going into a store to collect data isn’t the most comfortable feeling. As much as I love working with data at my computer at home, I’m not wild about actual data collection. But on this outing I was reminded of a piece of advice my mom has been sharing with me for decades: sometimes in life, the best approach is to just act like you belong and get the job done.

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