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Having worked in over 2,600 villages, Outline India is creating social impact through data

Shruti Kedia
31st Jul 2017
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Outline India is on a mission to solve the first-mile problem in the development sector—procuring reliable, relevant, and actionable data—to catalyse the process of social change.

A field worker conducting a survey in Rajasthan on girl child education.

Within a short span of five years Outline India, a research and advisory organisation, has worked across 23 states and over 2600 villages in India. With the aim of using data—quantitative and qualitative studies—as a tool to create social impact, the team of thirteen people, along with consultants, has worked on diverse projects ranging from education, child labour, and child rights to gender gaps, water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH), and sexual and reproductive health.

Embracing diversity across villages

Given the country’s diversity, working across villages has its challenges—every second village of the same district speaks a different dialect and has a different cuisine. The changing socio-demographic profiles and town connectivity increase the problems faced by the field workers who have to collect data about the various social welfare schemes or conduct surveys documenting rural India’s lifestyle with the aim to improve policies.

Outline India is an effort to bring data in its purest, most reliable and usable format to researchers and hence policy makers who will use this information to plan the lives of and design programmes for millions in dire need of intervention. We are the connection between the needs and the voices of the people and those sitting on the other side of the table with the power and resources to affect change, says Prerna Mukharya, Founder, Outline India.

She adds, “Primary research entails field work and this is one component of research that deserves and commands respect for how challenging it can be. If you can understand the trekking, the bad weather, the lack of internet, the lack of food and toilets for days, you can begin to get a flavour of our work— you can be working with a population that resents your presence, you can be in an area considered unsafe for anyone from the government, you can be in a location 12 km off any road, with no mobile connectivity.”

Outline India team walking through the fields, in Bihar, for a study on Sexual and reproductive health of adolescents.

Hence, the team tailors the survey instruments and strategies according to the locale they visit through a participatory and a bottom-up approach. Further, by recruiting field workers locally, the organisation not only provides employment on a per project basis but also gives them extensive training to help address the various ambiguities that emerge.

Narrating a recent story from their field work while studying the status of WASH infrastructure in government schools, Mahima Taneja, Research Associate with Outline India said: “In a question on the number of male and female members in the household during a household-level survey on girl child education in rural Rajasthan and Bihar, we observed that due to dialectical variations, words like ‘purush’ and ‘aadmi’ were either not comprehensible or misunderstood to mean ‘people’. This made even the simple process of recording the number of household members a challenge!”

Battling stereotypes and prejudices

Working in rural areas also entails that the team, largely based out of Delhi and Gurugram, accustom themselves to the traditions and customs of the village or town they visit.

I am forced to comply with the dominant norms and gender expectations while negotiating risk. Working in rural areas as a woman means to constantly push myself outside my comfort zone and make certain sartorial and tactical choices in order to gain acceptance and be welcome in the community I am working in, while ensuring my safety, says Mahima.
Mahima debriefs field workers in Pachira village in Araria, Bihar.

Further, the team experiences a mixed response from the rural community members. Often, people have welcomed them into their homes, offered tea, and shared their perceptions and problems. At times, close-ended survey-based data collection has led to long conversations on local and national politics and policies. However, they have also faced hostility and backlash as a result of the villagers’ prior experiences with outsiders.

They were once even turned away from conducting any surveys in a remote village in the western part of the country because a particular organisation had previously collected data there, falsely promising transfer of money to their bank accounts in return. Another time, the team was shocked to find that an organisation, under the garb of capacity building, had engaged in organ trafficking, making the villagers suspicious of outsiders.

Such instances have fostered distrust in the community and underline the importance of informed consent and conducting ethical research through proper channels. In other cases, some communities have become targets of multiple intervention and research programmes, leading to data saturation and research fatigue.

Data for social impact

Outline India conducts formative and evaluation studies, and primarily engages with international and national clients such as WaterAid, Centre for Civil Society, Dasra, and the UN Millennium campaign to end poverty, among others. Through the use of rigorous research methods and advanced technology to collect relevant, reliable, and actionable primary data, their work has been used for reprogramming, implementing, and evaluating ongoing campaigns, and to feed into policy decisions and intervention designs.

Researchers, Mahima and Siddharth, with the Rajasthan field team in Dholpur.

While the data that is collected and collated by government agencies is extensive in reach, it nonetheless has undeniable limitations.

Often, recording and reproduction of data is not timely or standardised and there is a lag between collection and release of information. These inefficiencies have immense implications for policymakers as they hinder their ability to design and measure impact of their policy/intervention programme through reliable data. Despite this, the emphasis is often laid on analysis and consulting instead of rigorous data- collection practices, says 26-year-old Mahima.

Outline India combines intellectual capital and technical know-how of a strong interdisciplinary team of researchers with a locally rooted field staff to fill existing gaps. For example, an approach towards a regular study to explore hand hygiene practices would focus on frequency of and behaviours around washing of hands, limiting the idea of hand hygiene to the use of water. However, a rigorously pre-tested tool, informed by ground realities would inform that this would fail to capture hand hygiene practices such as wiping with a cloth or rubbing mud on hands, which do not use water, “both of which are fairly common in rural India, especially so among the older population group. Further, while such a tool might assume gender differences in actual hygiene practices and capture that, it may fail to anticipate and thereby capture differences owing to age, caste, or profession,” Mahima adds.

Despite the exhaustive work and challenges, the organisation thrives to work with a population which hadn’t been exposed to any intervention programmes. Outline India is on a mission to solve the first-mile problem in the development sector—procuring reliable, relevant, and actionable data—to catalyse the process of social change.

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