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UN Joint Census Monitoring: Ensuring quality in data collection

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Enumerator taking notes before filling out the questionnaire
Enumerator taking notes before filling out the questionnaire
29 April, 2009: Hung Yen Province, Viet Nam - The interview proceeded with typical formality and courtesy:

-  “My name is Ngo Quang Khai and would like to interview you in order to get information for the 2009 Census.
- Please, come in and take a seat.
- Have you heard about the census?
- Yes.
- Your name is Truc Van Son?
- That is right.
- May I know, then, how many people are living in this household?”


This was only the very beginning of a long interview that elicits detailed information from a statistically significant number of households in each district.
It will take Khai, an enumerator in Hung Yen Province, about 45 minutes to complete the long questionnaire, which includes 57 questions on population, mortality and housing. In 15 days, he is supposed to fill out 157 questionnaires, so there is no time to lose.

Many of the questions are very straightforward. But for people who live in large, fluid households, or who patch together livelihoods from a variety of sources, questions about household size and main source of income are difficult to answer simply.

Khai listens carefully to the head of the household while taking notes. He wants to be sure that no mistakes are made. The quality of the data is key in a process like this one, and Khai is very aware of that and making sure that his attention doesn’t waiver.

Today is a special day. Khai is not alone, as he usually is. In fact, there are ten other people in the same room monitoring the data collection. Khai´s supervisor, five UN staff, and representatives from the General Statistics Office and the People´s Committee observe his work.

Thirty United Nations staff from five agencies in Viet Nam joined the statistics office and other partners to help monitor the 2009 Population and Housing Census in 21 provinces throughout the country. This is the first time that UN agencies in Viet Nam have jointly monitored a census, and their work underscores the importance of quality data:

“Supporting the 2009 Census is a key priority for the United Nations as it will provide the Government with the detailed information required to undertake more robust socio-economic development planning for the next ten years,” says John Hendra, United Nations Resident Coordinator.

Le Thi Phuong Mai, who is monitoring for UNFPA, has been involved in the preparation for the census and has taken part in several field visits, including the one to Hung Yen.

“We are happy with the data collection process, even if we have observed minor mistakes,” Phuong Mai said, pointing out the necessity of adhering strictly to procedures.  “Sometimes the enumerator did not introduce the purpose of the census enumeration to the household, assuming that the head of the household was already informed through mass media. There have been some cases in which enumerators did not review the questionnaire before they had it signed by the head of the household,” she added.

Everything according to the plan

Image: The UN monitoring team is approaching a household in Hung Yen provinceEmploying 250,000 enumerators, 42,000 supervisors and some 6,000 central, provincial and district staff, the census is an expensive project.  The Government is shouldering the bulk of the $33 million cost, with UNFPA contributing $3 million.

The painstaking census preparation, including the publicity campaign, households listing and mapping, training and monitoring for enumerators and supervisors, and production and distribution of materials, has gone well, according to Rajen Kumar Sharma, UNICEF Programme Officer and Chief of Provincial Child Friendly Programme who participated in An Giang Province monitoring trip.

“Local people seemed to be quite aware of the census from the activities undertaken at the local level by authorities through television, radio, village meetings and posters, among others,” he says.

And all the materials were in place for the census. “The questionnaires and the manuals for enumerators were in the right hands, at the right time, and in the right quantities. We have not observed any shortages in materials,” UNFPA Representative Bruce Campbell explains.

Rigorous trainings and a hotline for enumerators and supervisors have worked out well, too, he adds. Double checking by supervisors has added another level of quality control. Trinh Phuong Lan is the supervisor in Cham Mat commune in Hoa Binh province.

“Every day, since the census started I have checked the questionnaires filled out by the two enumerators under my supervision. Whenever I have found errors in the forms I fixed them by going back to the household to ask the questions again to the head of the family,” she says.

“Enumerators seemed to have been well trained and they were using the interview guidelines quite strictly,” says Rajen Kumar Sharma. Depending on the type of questionnaire they were responsible for, all enumerators and supervisors attended 3, 4, 5 and even 8-days trainings.

Challenges faced

The rain on the first three days of April seriously affected the progress of the census enumeration. In some provinces, such as Hoa Binh, transportation was reported as a difficulty, because of the weather conditions, and enumerators could not access some households located in mountainous areas.  In addition to the poor quality of the pens and corrector pens that was pointed out as a problem, a large majority of enumerators in the monitored provinces highlighted the challenge of the timing for data collection. 

“It is not easy to find people at home” says Khai. “During working hours it is difficult to arrange interviews. I usually have to meet heads of households at noon and in the evenings. Very often, I have gone up to three or four times to the same household,” he adds.

Apart from this, he has found problems in answering questions 23 to 27, related to occupation. “People usually do different work at the same time, so they might have several forms of income. That is why they find it difficult to tell me about their main occupation,” Khai explains.

In some cases, heads of households found it difficult to remember the solar month and year in which they were born, and they had to resort to a moment in history to remember it. Other times, they only remembered the season in which they were born.

One other issue, raised by Suzette Mitchell, UNIFEM Country Manager, who participated in Bac Ninh and Bac Giang trips, was the preponderance of men as both enumerators and supervisors.

Image: Bruce Campbell, UNFPA Representative, observing the data collection in Hoa BinhAccording to her, “the recruitment process for the enumerators could be looked at further for the next census as the limited number of female enumerators not only means women miss this interesting opportunity to learn and gain a small income from the work, but in some cases it is more appropriate for women to be interviewing single women or women in dormitories, rather than having men coming into these women’s residences on their own,”

Utilization of data

According to the Census Steering Committee in Hoa Binh, different units and branches within the finance, education, health, public security and construction sectors will use the 2009 Census data to formulate their plans. Nationwide, the data will be used to assess the implementation of the 2001-2010 socio-economic development plan, as well as to prepare for the next one (2010-2020).

 “The 2009 Census will provide us with the most robust data required for improving the evidence base for our policy, programming and prioritization of development assistance.  This same data will also enable us to strengthen the ‘results-orientation’ of our combined effort,” concludes Bruce Campbell.


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