30 October 2012

Reaching remote villages with technology

National Statistical Office staff measure the height of children in Baan Mae Tuen village.
© UNICEF Thailand/2012/M. Thomas

Story by Nattha Keenapan

(The story was published in the Bangkok Post newspaper on October 30, 2012)

CHIANG MAI, Thailand - Sumart Lima, a father of two small children in this small village nestled in the mist-shrouded highlands of Chiang Mai’s Om  Koi District, thinks “people out there should know how we live and what our problems are.”
That is also the goal of the National Statistical Office (NSO), which recently dispatched survey teams to this remote rural village to interview Sumart’s family and 19 other families as part of a major national survey on the living conditions and the well-being of children and women in Thailand. The survey, officially known as the Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey (MICS), is being carried out by the NSO with technical and funding support from several other Ministries working on children’s issues and UNICEF.

NSO surveyors will be visiting some 27,000 randomly selected households throughout the country’s 77 provinces during the final quarter of the year to collect data for the survey. The results will be used to measure progress against national child development goals and to help steer future programme and policy development.

It took the NSO vehicles several hours to navigate the steep and winding mountain roads that ascend to Baan Mae Tuen, a journey made even more challenging due to heavy rain and thick morning mist.  While the drive to the village was difficult, the household interviews, which included questions on issues ranging from health, nutrition, sanitation and education to domestic violence and HIV/AIDS, were made a bit easier due a major innovation – the use of Tablet PCs. 

Some 230 NSO surveyors, who in the past employed only paper-based questionnaires, recently completed two weeks of training for the survey, including the use of Tablet PCs for fieldwork. The Tablet PCs were put into use by the NSO for the first time for this survey, and it is expected they will serve to improve the overall accuracy, efficiency and speed of data collection. It is also the first time globally that Tablet PCs have been used for any MICS, which are carried out with support from UNICEF in countries around the world.

Sumart, 41, and his family warmly welcomed the NSO survey team when they showed up at their home.

“It’s the first time that we have had visitors who are curious about our living conditions,” said Sumart. “It’s good (to have visitors) so we won’t feel so isolated up here.”

About 480 people live in Baan Mae Tuen, with children and the elderly accounting for about half of the population. Natthawut Marungrueang, the village chief, said most families in the village earn about 5,000 baht a month growing rice and vegetables, and that poverty, drugs and the quality of education are major challenges affecting children’s lives.

Budhicha Lima, Sumart’s cute and cheerful 4-year-old daughter, was excited by the arrival of the NSO team and curious about the Tablet PCs, became even more animated when the surveyors measured her weight and height. Children under five years old are weighed and measured as part of the survey in order to monitor the impact of poor nutrition which can lead to stunting and wasting, problems that still remain among marginalized populations in Thailand. Even though Budhicha attends kindergarten regularly and seems to be developing normally, her father is still concerned about her future.

“We don’t have enough teachers here” said Sumart. “The teachers don’t stay for long as this village is so remote. I think many people here don’t fully appreciate the importance of their children’s education.”

As part of the survey, the family was also asked to show birth certificates of their two children as well as their immunization records. The surveyors also tested the salt in their kitchen to see if it had iodine which is an essential micro-nutrient crucial for brain development, especially during pregnancy and childhood.

Some of the questions, directly addressed to the women, were related to attitudes towards pregnancy, HIV/AIDS and domestic violence.

At the end of each day, the NSO fieldworkers were able to uplink to the internet in the village and send the completed questionnaires to NSO headquarters in Bangkok, where managers are monitoring the overall progress of the survey and the quality of data collection. The use of tablet PCs has eliminated the lengthy process of traditional data entry in which surveyors had to manually key-in answers from the paper-based questionnaires when they returned to their offices from the field.

“Tablet PCs are easy to use, save a lot of time and ensure accuracy of the data collection as the software automatically cross-checks the answers for us,” said Jinnapong Wichaisri, an NSO surveyor.  “I think it’s a great innovation for our work now and in the future.”

The results of the survey are expected to be released in early 2013.

Follow the survey team at http://www.facebook.com/MICS4.Thailand

Story by Nattha Keenapan

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