Data Collection Methods - Minnesota Dept. of Health

Brief Overview of Data Collection Methods

The following data collection methods can be very helpful in engaging
the community.

Focus Groups
Key Informant Interviews
Community Forums and Public Hearings
Community Resource Inventories

Focus Groups

Guided group discussion with a group of five to ten individuals from similar backgrounds with a skilled moderator, and, if possible, a recorder. Moderator guides group into increasing levels of focus and depth on key issues of the research topic.

Time: 1½-2 hours each scheduled consecutively over limited number of days
Expertise: Moderate
Cost: Low

How can focus groups help us in our needs assessment?

  • Generate and screen new ideas
  • Provide preliminary guidance concerning a particular HIV prevention issue
  • Identify key issues for further follow-up
  • Provide insights into the needs and opinions of a target population

How many groups should we form?

It depends on how much information you need, and at what level of detail.

  • At least one for each major constituency group or target population under consideration (e.g., women, gay men of color, youth, etc.); more if you are looking at differences within a single target population
  • Conduct groups in each geographic region where a meaningful difference is felt to exist
  • Conduct groups until the information is no longer new or becomes repetitious

How do we formulate the questions to ask?

Decide what decisions need to be made based upon the data. If you are making decisions about specific HIV programs (e.g., how many anonymous versus confidential testing sites to establish), the questions will not be the same as those you would ask if you are trying to assess the behaviors of a particular population (e.g., the condom usage of adolescents).

Determine where the focus groups fit in the needs assessment process. For example, questions can be very specific if you are trying to understand the results of a survey or broader if you are trying to develop a profile of HIV in the community.

What helps the focus groups work and give us useful data?

  • A fairly specific discussion guide
  • Participants are clear about the purpose of the groups
  • Setting is non-threatening and encourages open discussion
  • Approach and way groups conducted are consistent
  • Moderator is skilled, HIV knowledgeable, and objective
  • Childcare, transportation, and incentives (refreshments, vouchers) are offered when necessary

Of what pitfalls should we be aware?

  • Do not look to groups to finalize difficult decisions for the planning group
  • Do not assume the groups represent a random sampling of the population
  • If topics are too sensitive or peer pressures exist within the groups, this is not the method to use

Adapted From: Debus, Mary. A Handbook for Excellence in Focus Group Research. HEALTHCOM Project special report series. Center for Global Health Communication and Marketing.

Key Informant Interviews

One-on-one interviews with individuals who represent important constituencies with knowledge or experience about your issue. Skilled interviewer uses extensive probing and open-ended questions to obtain data about needs. Allows respondents to express their understanding in their own terms.

Time: Not more than 1 hour per meeting (could interview individual again, if needed)
Expertise: Moderate
Cost: Low

How will these interviews contribute to our needs assessment?

  • Provide an informed perspective from those working "in the trenches"
  • Focus needs assessment on particular issues of concern
  • Obtain fairly concrete statements about need
  • Increase awareness about agencies and services

Who should we interview?

  • Community, religious, and other leaders
  • Public officials
  • People experiencing the problem you are trying to address
  • Program administrators, non-governmental organizations, etc.
  • Service providers (e.g., health care providers, outreach workers)
  • Others with expertise, such as behavioral scientists

What helps the interviews work and gives us useful data?

  • An interview guide or list of open-ended questions (10 at the most) is used for every interview and interviewers are trained to conduct the interview
  • Informants are chosen based upon the longevity and/or the nature of their involvement with the community to cover a full range of community opinion
  • Informants are aware of the needs and services perceived as important by a community
  • Informants are clear about the purpose of the interview and interested in participating
  • The interviewer develops rapport with the informant and makes him/her feel comfortable
  • The interviewer is able to take advantage of unexpected "leads" while keeping the interview on track
  • The interviewer asks probing questions (not the judgmental "why") to elicit greater detail: can you give me an example to help me better understand what you mean; what makes you say that; how come?

How can we avoid common pitfalls?

  • A fairly specific discussion guide
  • Participants are clear about the purpose of the groups
  • Setting is non-threatening and encourages open discussion
  • Approach and way groups conducted are consistent
  • Moderator is skilled, knowledgeable, and objective
  • Childcare, transportation, and incentives (refreshments, vouchers) are offered when necessary

Of what pitfalls should we be aware?

  • Key informants may have professional biases toward their organizations, activities, or constituencies; to minimize, try more than one person who represents the community
  • Interviewers may be biased by preconceived notions that do not allow them to process contradictory information from the informant; train the interviewers so that they can meets such information with sensitivity and responsiveness
  • Informants may not easily respond to the interview; use phrases such as: "Feel free to take a couple minutes to think about it" or "We still have time, is there anything you'd like to add?"

Adapted From: Debus, Mary. A Handbook for Excellence in Focus Group Research. HEALTHCOM Project special report series. Center for Global Health Communication and Marketing.

Community Forums and Public Hearings

A series of public meetings to involve the community in defining and discussing needs. These methods are data-gathering techniques from the political arena. Community forums are less formal and open to the public, while hearings consist of testimony from selected witnesses and often the issuance of a summary report.

Time: 2-4 hours each
Expertise: Low
Cost: Low

What is the advantage of holding public meetings?

  • They can raise the credibility of the needs assessment process by enhancing openness and inclusion
  • These activities are inexpensive and relatively easy-to-arrange
  • Community members who were not selected for planning group membership can participate
  • Forums and hearings can raise the level of awareness and understanding about your issue and the community planning initiative
  • These methods can be a way to build community ownership of and investment in your issue and the planning process
  • The meetings may reveal issues that warrant further investigation

How can we make sure the forum or hearing goes smoothly?

  • The planning group and other organizers agree on the purpose of the hearing and are committed to being present
  • The ground rules should be decided and announced prior to the meeting, and reiterated at the meeting; this includes how speakers will be identified, time allotted for speakers, whether written testimony is required, the format for questions and answers
  • Put the rules in writing and have them available at the meeting for latecomers
  • Ensure that the event is widely publicized, and not in just the "mainstream" media outlets; consider flyers at community-based organizations, ads in newspapers serving particular communities (each planning group member can be responsible for spreading the word)
  • Choose the location with the idea of encouraging community participation while still meeting the comfort needs of the participants
  • Consider having the planning group travel to different sites throughout their area

Of what pitfalls should we be aware?

  • Community members who choose to participate may not be completely representative of the community; remember, some people with good ideas or a clear understanding of the issues do not like to speak at such events
  • Just because the needs may be stated eloquently and with many listeners, does not mean that other data collection methods should be discounted
  • Do not allow representation to become too narrow; the needs identified depend on the characteristics and backgrounds of those who participate
  • Do not use hearings/forums as your primary data collection method


Often used with a variety of meanings and can take a number of forms, but three different types generally used in needs assessment: face-to-face, telephone, and mailed (questionnaires). Survey may be an extensive study of the needs of a large community or a brief and superficial study of the situation of a particular organization.

Time: Should not take respondent more than 45 minutes to 1 hour to complete
Expertise: High
Cost: High

How can a survey help the needs assessment?

  • Provides statistically significant data
  • Collects information from large numbers of people
  • Offers flexibility in type of information collected (e.g., knowledge and behaviors or service provider characteristics, and from whom)

How do we decide whether to do a survey?

  • Decision to conduct survey must be part of overall needs assessment process in which you determine exactly what data are needed
  • Questions to be asked can be clearly defined (often, focus groups or other qualitative methods can assist in survey design)
  • The anonymity of respondents is very important

What are the steps to follow if we decide to conduct a survey?

  • Develop initial plan with objectives, potential approaches, timeline, resource requirements, and action steps for discussion with the planning group
  • Decide whether to utilize outside expertise and bring the survey "experts" in as early as possible in the process
  • Define objectives more thoroughly to determine survey questions or data items and general analysis
  • Select survey type (e.g., face-to-face, phone, mail)
  • Identify data items to be collected; use questions from previous surveys, if possible
  • Design analysis plan to specify exactly how the results of each survey question will be used; do not collect data that will not be used
  • Design survey instruments to avoid interviewing errors and, consequently, analysis problems; the instruments should be simple and use the language of the respondent
  • Design sample to be surveyed, with outside assistance, to reduce the magnitude of error and allow results to be more accurately generalized to larger populations
  • Design procedures for delivery of the survey, with step-by-step instructions for everyone involved
  • Recruit and train survey staff (for face-to-face and telephone surveys) to ensure consistency and comparable responses
  • Conduct pretest and deliver survey to previously determined sample
  • Prepare data for analysis by checking for consistency and completeness

Of what pitfalls should we be aware?

  • Time and money can be wasted if you do not utilize expertise in survey design, implementation, and analysis
  • Many people do not respond to written surveys. This method may require intensive follow-up activities (e.g., second mailing of surveys, telephone contact)
  • If the planning group does not agree up-front as to the purpose of the survey, the process can lead to misunderstanding and disappointments later

Community Resource Inventories

A means of data collection that usually results from a survey of service providers, which yields a listing or summary of information about activities and services provided by organizations and agencies in a defined geographic area. Levels of analysis may range from a state to a neighborhood. It answers the question: "Who is doing what for whom?"

Time: Should not take respondent more than one hour to complete
Expertise: Moderate
Cost: Moderate

What are the benefits of doing a resource inventory?

  • Identifies the range of organizations and agencies in the community that are serving various target populations
  • Provides information about the perceived quality program activities
  • Estimates service utilization (the number of clients being served) and service capacity (the number of clients who could be served)
  • Provides understanding regarding the capabilities, philosophy, functions, and goals of organizations
  • Collects information about the potential for coordinating community activities and creating linkages among agencies

What helps the inventories work and gives us useful data?

  • Involve respondents in design of the inventory: Members of the planning group may be affiliated with agencies that will respond to the questionnaire; get your input on question wording and ways to increase the number of respondents
  • Consider using the inventory as a needs assessment tool; ask some questions about the perceived program needs of the populations they target
  • Gather any previously developed inventories and surveys used to create them; learn about format and other issues from these materials

What are the steps to follow in doing a resource inventory?

  1. Decide whom to contact and define the geographic area under consideration
  2. Determine categories of service provider agencies (e.g., public and private organizations engaged in HIV prevention and education)
  3. Select agencies for the inventory and identify their respective representatives
  4. Construct the resource inventory (you may include questions about amounts and sources of funding, number of paid and volunteer staff, staff language capabilities, available educational materials, exact nature of services provided, operating hours, perceived quality of services, target populations served, linkages with other agencies)
  5. Contact providers and conduct inventory
  6. Compile and analyze inventory data

How can we evaluate whether the inventory is a good one?

The inventory should be:

  • Comprehensive
  • Descriptive
  • Unbiased
  • Adaptable for regular updates
  • Multipurpose