COVID: Using CATI for data collection in Cambodia

EMC recently commissioned a quantitative survey of 200 smallholder farmers in four provinces via CATI (computer assisted telephone interviewing). The survey was one element of a larger feasibility study EMC conducted for investors in the financial services sector.

We had originally planned typical face to face interviews, but the impact of COVID travel restrictions, shortly after the project commenced made this impossible.

Face-to-face interviews have been the familiar method for primary data collection in surveys, and CATI (Computer Assisted Telephone Interviewing) is rarely used in Cambodia. However, in COVID affected times, interviewing respondents by phone offers two distinct advantages – it’s not affected by safety concerns and travel restrictions, and cost efficiency can be significantly higher than personal interviews.  In this particular case the CATI survey took only 3 days compared with 12 days (including travel time) originally budgeted for face-to-face interviews

Over the years, CATI systems have evolved beyond simple ‘telephone interviewing’ and typically comprises a compilation of software tools – survey programming software, sample management to randomly select respondents according to pre-set quotas, an automatic dialer integration to help with productivity and supervisory tools for quality management.  Though in simple short surveys such as ours, a full set up is not obligatory.

We and our clients were very pleased with the outcome and gained the following insights in the process:

·      We identified 3 research companies in Cambodia with some relevant CATI experience, of which we selected one based on appropriate real time data collection tools, available interviewers and quality control protocol.

·      Based on our experience, the support in set up (programming structure, wording etc.), execution and final data delivery showed high commitment to quality standards, tight deadlines, and professional communication.

·      An existing database of contacts with valid phone numbers is key, especially in case of tight timing, as the major challenge in CATI is accessing the defined target group efficiently.

·      While face-to-face interviews are preferable when it comes to qualitative in-depth interviews, discussion of complex survey input or personal rapport for sensitive topics, CATI can be used when the questionnaire is structured, only contains few open ended questions and discusses a straightforward topic that can be captured with mostly closed questions.

·      Time limits for CATI are stricter than for personal interviews due to the respondents’ lower commitment – it is easier to drop out of a call than a face-to-face conversation! For the target group of farmers, we aimed for a 10-minute interview which requires a dense but still simple questionnaire. Longer interviews are possible, provided the topic triggers high enough involvement.

·      Timing of CATI calls needs to follow the schedule of the target group – in our case, strongly involving evenings – and thus requires a service provider willing to accommodate these needs.

When the circumstances allow for a CATI survey, the implementation can be convenient, fast and cost efficient also in Cambodia and be a valuable method to collect primary data across the country.

EMC has done a lot of work for existing players and interested investors, relating to firms’ or consumers’ demand for products and services. A couple of related blogs include;


Estimating market size for new products and services

Estimating borrowing capacity of Cambodian businesses

(Thanks our colleague Naomi Reich leading the successful feasibility study).