NIDS-CRAM, a uniquely collaborative national survey to meet the needs of the moment

Image: Gerd Altmann on Pixabay

In late March 2020, the idea for a rapid survey to assess the impact of COVID-19 on South Africa was first conceived by Dr Nic Spaull of Stellenbosch University, together with several researchers from across the country. SALDRU quickly became involved in helping to make this happen and the National Income Dynamics Study – Coronavirus Rapid Mobile Survey (NIDS-CRAM) was born. On 5 May 2020, interviewers began making calls for this survey. Just 14 months later, 5 waves of data had been collected and released, and this included a sample top-up in the third wave. Not only had the data been publicly released, but 65 NIDS-CRAM research and technical papers had been written and President Ramaphosa had quoted results from the study in national speeches. The story of how this happened is a story of a uniquely collaborative national survey in South Africa which met the needs of the moment.


The NIDS-CRAM journey

The period over which NIDS-CRAM was conducted was challenging. Work on the survey began during the strictest lockdown level in South Africa, level 5.

Since face-to-face meetings were not an option, the primary group meeting mode of choice for much of NIDS-CRAM was Zoom, a platform which prior to March last year, many of us had never heard of or used. The first of these calls which some of the SALDRU NIDS-CRAM implementation team joined included many top economics academics from multiple universities across South Africa. These experts were dialling in from their homes, and working together to decide on which items could and should make it into the survey questionnaire.

This consortium of people were united by the desire to work on a study that aimed to collect and release nationally representative data in as short a time-frame as possible, since the pandemic and associated lockdowns were anticipated to have large effects on the economy and well-being of the population.

This data would be important to inform evidence-based policy making in response to these effects. The study was also envisioned to fill at least a temporary dearth of nationally representative survey data at the beginning of the pandemic, since most studies that generate this type of data were conducted face-to-face prior to the pandemic. Face-to-face surveys would not be possible at the time as a result of lockdown restrictions and concerns over increased spread of COVID-19.

Indeed, when NIDS-CRAM Wave 1 was released, it revealed the first picture of the effects of the pandemic in South Africa, informed by national data.

NIDS-CRAM is so named as it ended up being a special follow-up with a subsample of adults from households in the National Income Dynamics Study (NIDS) Wave 5, which was conducted in 2017. NIDS Wave 5 was chosen as the sampling frame as it was deemed likely to produce a more representative sample than alternative sampling approaches would yield, such as from random number dialling. Though NIDS-CRAM is a follow up with NIDS respondents, in comparison to the original NIDS panel study, NIDS-CRAM uses a much shorter questionnaire, with a focus on the Coronavirus pandemic and the impact of the national lockdowns. The mode of the survey also changed from face-to-face to Computer Assisted Telephone Interviewing (CATI) surveys. Another salient difference between NIDS and NIDS-CRAM was the time intervals between successive waves; two or three years for NIDS as compared to approximately three months for NIDS-CRAM.

Once NIDS was chosen as the sampling frame, a team from SALDRU headed by A/Prof. Reza Daniels  was selected to act as the data collection and data quality team for NIDS-CRAM. SALDRU was able to apply its decades of experience from implementing local and national panel surveys. Importantly, SALDRU had also been the implementing agency for the original five waves of NIDS. Other working groups for NIDS-CRAM were organised around the following themes and tasks: labour and firms, social welfare, health and COVID-19, and sampling. A steering committee and reference group was also created. These groups were made up of researchers from multiple universities working together (including a number of Saldrupians), with some groups also composed of government officials and members of NGOs.

It was a pleasure to get some of the old SALDRU “NIDS team” back together again to contribute to NIDS-CRAM, and this undoubtedly made the project much more attainable.

Some of the previous survey assistants from NIDS, who still worked in SALDRU, helped with Wave 1’s training, operational aspects of the questionnaire and questionnaire translation reviews. Other people who had been involved with NIDS who were involved in differing capacities in NIDS-CRAM were previous principal investigators of NIDS, data analysts who worked on NIDS, members of the data and outreach teams of NIDS, and authors of previous NIDS working and technical papers.

Ask Afrika was selected as the fieldwork company for NIDS-CRAM in April 2020. A lot needed to be achieved in a very short period of time and the batched sampling approach of Wave 1, multiple phone numbers for respondents, and the call attempt rules required for each phone number caused some implementation challenges initially. The Ask Afrika and SALDRU teams thus worked very closely together in the early days in order to address issues. Despite this close relationship, the medium of day-to-day communication had been entirely camera-off Zoom calls, phone calls and emails. The SALDRU team realised that they had never seen what some of the team members from Ask Afrika looked like, after working closely with them for over a year. So when closing off Wave 5 they prompted a quick “video on” section of two meetings so that everyone could see the face which matched the voice that they had heard so often over the last year. This was quite a surreal and strange experience.

The ever-looming threat that key individuals may fall ill, given the COVID-19 pandemic, led to a uniquely COVID-19-inspired organisational structure with key staff being fully informed about all aspects of the study implementation for multiple departments. Key staff members were thus effectively acting as each other’s understudies, ready to step in and take over tasks, should anyone on the team fall ill. This often meant that there was a degree of overlap in tasks, and at times more people on a call than may have seemed necessary. This was also as a result of many decisions needing to be made very quickly, from fully-informed team members. But pandemic conditions also drove how this study was implemented so quickly – were it not for the pandemic, we would have likely defaulted to meeting in person much of the time. While all this would be the typical “ideal”, it would also have slowed things down substantially.


Some recognition of NIDS-CRAM

How then did NIDS-CRAM end up being cited by the President on more than one occasion (one such occasion being the Response to debate on State of the Nation Address 2021) and the NIDS-CRAM survey team announced as a finalist of the 2020/2021 National Science and Technology Forum (NSTF)-South32 Awards under the Data for Research Award Category?

Though the study was privately funded by The Allan & Gill Gray Philanthropy, the Federated Employer’s Mutual (FEM) Education Fund, and the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation; the Department of Planning Monitoring and Evaluation (DPME) was approached during the conception stage of the project in order to obtain permission to run this special round of NIDS, which they granted.  In addition to the DPME, the project also received formal endorsement from the National Treasury, the Department of Health and the National Planning Commission. All of these departments received regular updates on NIDS-CRAM as and when results and information were available.

Some of the respondents to presentations during NIDS-CRAM wave launches were members of government departments, and some of the working groups included members or received questionnaire input from representatives of government departments. Engagement activities by NIDS-CRAM also included presenting insights from the study to several government departments, NGOs, private sector institutions, and academic research units. Engagement with the media was also extensive, with NIDS-CRAM paper authors writing series’ of op-eds in publication houses such as the Financial Mail and Daily Maverick, which coincided with some of the waves’ data releases; and with NIDS-CRAM written about in international publication houses such as The Economist.

The contribution of NIDS-CRAM in showing South Africa’s journey through various lockdown levels, and importantly, the dynamics between these lockdown levels, is of great policy significance. As a result, some may wonder why the study is not executing another wave now. As A/Prof Reza Daniels mentioned at the Wave 5 launch, we should remember that this study is only possible with the willing participation of the NIDS-CRAM participants, who are likely fatigued from the numerous calls they have received from us over the last year. Thus, we believe that this is a sensible moment to pause and fundraise for another wave of NIDS-CRAM, perhaps in 2022.

There was another important contribution of NIDS-CRAM to the researchers and implementation agents of the study, but on a more personal level.

Something that was reiterated by members of the broader NIDS-CRAM group was the appreciation that being involved in NIDS-CRAM helped us to feel less helpless in the face of the pandemic, and gave us an opportunity to use our skills to contribute to something useful for the country.