Sowing the seeds of digital data collection

Darllenwch y dudalen hon yn Gymraeg

As you’d expect, here in Welsh Government we gather a wide range of data, and one of our longest running surveys is the Welsh Agricultural Survey which has been running since 1867! This is a large survey and every year farmers provide us with lots of information about their land, livestock and the people who work on their Welsh farms.

Things have moved on a lot since 1867 and this year we were able test out whether we could take a more digital approach for collecting this information. Up until this year, farmers would complete paper forms and send them to us to process and bring together the data so that we could analyse it. Whilst this approach is well established, it’s not the most efficient method and also not necessarily the easiest way for farmers to provide us with their information.

So this year we decided to pilot an online data collection for the first time, and gave farmers the option to either complete the survey online or use their usual paper forms. Since we already have a successful online platform, Rural Payments Wales (RPW) Online, which farmers are used to, it made sense for us to work with the RPW team to build on this and use it for hosting the survey.

Benefits of going digital

One benefit of moving online is that, when completing the survey, users only need to answer the questions that apply to them and don’t see the ones that don’t. Also guidance notes or hints and tips can be put right next to the questions that users may be stuck on, making it easier for them to get help. Plus, everything is in Welsh and English and the farmers can easily switch between both languages if they wish.

Digital collection also means that rather than waiting until we’ve received a completed form to check for possible errors, the online survey now lets the farmers know, as they’re completing it, if they’ve made a mistake and ask them to change it before submitting the form. As a result the farmers have less phone calls from us (which I’m sure they prefer), the information we receive is more accurate and the whole process is a lot quicker.

The digital approach has also been helpful in communicating with the farmers. Whilst all those taking part in the survey were sent a letter asking them to complete the survey, we also sent out an e-mail or SMS text message to let them know the online system was open. In fact we noticed that sending out digital reminders has led to a notable increase in responses.

Scores on the doors

You couldn’t expect a blog post about a statistical survey without at least a few figures. This year the survey was sent to 10,600 farms, and when the online survey closed on 1 October we had received:

  • 875 completed online surveys
  • 3,295 completed paper surveys
  • 4,120 surveys completed in total

All in all, the online returns made up around 20% of all the completed surveys we received, which we think is a pretty good return for the first year. Also, in the current climate, where getting people to respond to government surveys is an ongoing challenge, we’re optimistic that offering the survey online will help address this situation.

So, where to next? Well, we’ll be looking over what worked well and what didn’t, so that we can improve things for next year’s survey. Hopefully we’ll be able to build upon our experiences and see even more farmers opting for the digital option in subsequent years.

Post by Stuart Neil, Agriculture and Rural Affairs Statistician

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