By Bart Orriens
What constitutes the ideal survey software package? This seemingly innocent question is likely to elicit as much consensus as disagreement among those of us who are in the business of collecting data. Having been in this area myself for a while, I distinctly remember entering the field thinking ‘how hard can it be to ask people questions and get their answers’. I soon realized there are many things to consider, and my list of requirements for the ideal software package simply grew as the years and data collection projects passed by.
For starters, designing a good questionnaire is an art unto itself if you want to ask questions in a manner that is clear, makes sense to the respondent, and results in meaningful answers. Another key requirement is of course that you are able to recruit participants in a way that aligns with how you intend to analyze and use the collected data in the first place. And I am not even thinking about ‘minor’ details such as determining and managing the modes of interview or how to best obtain data that is both complete and error free. Likewise, issues like the use of different devices and browsers may lead to different survey experiences for respondents.
Though these kinds of topic can typically not be solved by technology alone, it is nonetheless important to keep them in mind, because the options available to address them are often limited by our choice for a particular software solution. Here at the Center for Economic and Social Research at the University of Southern California we have been working hard at developing our own version of an advanced survey software solution, which we have dubbed NubiS.
NubiS is a sophisticated data collection tool aimed to satisfy a wide range of needs for the data collection projects at CESR and other research organizations. NubiS runs on any server, PC, laptop or netbook as well as on tablets or smartphones (both in an online or offline setting). NubiS can also collect continuous information from external devices like accelerometers, GPS devices, blood pressure meters and other biomedical devices. Furthermore, NubiS seamlessly integrates all the traditional modes of data collection like self-administered, face-to-face, and telephone interviewing, and surveys can be given in any language depending upon each survey respondent’s preference.
Naturally NubiS comes with a powerful survey engine delivering all the tools needed to program a survey (dynamic question text, skip patterns, randomizations and loops) in a fast and reliable manner. NubiS’ extensible presentation capability allows you to display your questions and elicit answers in the way you see fit using either our pre-defined and well tested templates or your own custom developed ones. A comprehensive validation mechanism assists respondents to answer questions in the manner you desire and the included savvy interactive components enable you to easily add visual interaction with questions like automatically de-selecting certain options or preventing anything but numbers being used to answer a numerical question.
The functionality on the front-end is matched on the back-end by an array of survey management options, like extracting data (such as raw data, time spent, para data like keystrokes or mouse clicks, and screenshots), obtaining so-called metadata (human readable versions of a programmed survey), or visually appealing auto-generated descriptive graphs. In addition, there is functionality available for managing your sample, tracking the fieldwork process, allowing other involved parties (e.g. interviewers, supervisors, and researchers) to interact with NubiS, all within the same singularly presented interface. Last but not least NubiS is open source and as such freely available!
Now, does this mean that NubiS is the ideal survey software package? The answer must be an emphatic NO, since every data collection project comes with its own unique requirements. Moreover, the field of data collection is ever evolving in terms of technology. As such, no software solution can ever hope to be complete and in my mind it should in fact never desire to be so. It is for this reason that we are constantly extending, refining and further improving NubiS. Having said that, we have confidence in NubiS’ capacity to address frequently encountered data collection requirements in an effective and satisfactory manner.