Zero defects: An admirable but elusive goal
Can we really do two things at once?


The final session of this conference offered five papers under the general heading of "Potential for Innovations with New Technology and Communication Tools." (Here I disclose that I presented in this session with help from two colleagues.) The papers ran the gamut from better tools for interviewers to do what they always have done to a variety of Web 2.0 data collection methods to crowdsourcing questionnaire and database design. The precision and rigor that characterized most of the research presented over the previous two and half days gave way to an emphasis on general possibilities and "good idea" experiments. Much of what we presented would be very familiar to most readers of this blog. None of what we offered in this session was presented as a replacement for what is already being done or a radical rethinking of current methods used to collect and disseminate heath data. I think the presenters shared the common goal of offering some new ways to approach data collection and possibly enhance it, but firebrands we were not. Playing to the incremental and evolutionary instincts of the group we simply offered food for thought as thoughtfully as we could. That is, until the discussant, Michael Link from Nielsen got up and took the room to task for being too timid, too afraid of experimentation and too closed to new ways of doing things. He is uniquely qualified on this score, having been an established player in the federal health research complex before going to Nielsen where he has learned firsthand how new technologies and the different kind of social interaction they engender can be the basis for a radical redesign of how we design and do survey research. Having worked in that side of the industry much longer ago than Michael, I certainly felt his frustration. But I don't know whether the right way to move forward on a new agenda with this group is with a soft sell or a hard sell.

As I think I said in the first of these posts, I've not been to the last three of these conferences, stretching back to 2004. I've enjoyed them immensely. These are smart people who know their survey P's and Q's and practice them faithfully every day. In their own way they are patriots who believe that they are performing not just an important but a critical service for our government and country. Good for them.

Over the eight years since my first conference the practice of survey research in my part of this industry has been in near constant turmoil and has a still uncertain future. In theirs it seems little has changed. They still worry about declining cooperation, creating better measures and funding, but making progress on each of these seems painfully slow. I suppose you could argue that they need to go slowly because their numbers are more important than mine but that doesn't keep me from sharing Michael's frustration. Nonetheless, I can't wait for next round.