Apr 092014

European Identities in the Cloud

As previously reported on this blog, my PhD student and I are doing a CATI survey on European Identities. We opted for queXS (an open source CATI front-end for Limesurvey) and chose a solution hosted by the Australian Consortium for Social and Political Research on Amazon’s network.

Hosted queXS Is Reliable

Initially, we suffered from a few hick-ups that hit the system while interviewing was in full swing: The form would sometimes simply not open at the very beginning of an interview, which understandably drove our interviewers nuts. Support in Australia fixed the problem quickly, but because of the time difference, we had a somewhat anxious night. Voice over IP connectivity was integrated from Australia but provided by a German company. By and large, that worked well, too. We had one major outage but again, after contacting the ACSPR, that was fixed for good.

PCs and Interviewers not yet Virtualised

PCs and Interviewers not yet Virtualised

Lousy Response Rate Not a Software Problem

The one element that we did not virtualise were the interviewers. We had hired a large group of student helpers, which, with hindsight, was not necessarily a brilliant idea. queXS makes it very easy to track operator performance, and so we could quickly see that some of them generated very, very high refusal rates. They all received initial training and constant supervision from us, but some of them would barely manage to get one twenty-minute interview per four-hour shift. Others managed four or more. Our star and role model was a guy who attends acting school. If I could clone and upload him to the cloud, I would be a very happy chappy.

Mar 222014

One of my very able PhD students is working on a better instrument for measuring the interaction of national and European identities. Thanks to the generosity of the Fritz Thyssen Stiftung, we can now road-test some of his ideas in a three-wave telephone survey. Fieldwork for the first wave will commence on Monday, and we are rather excited, not least because we are running this survey in our own “studio”, with a large number of student research assistants working as interviewers.

Worldclouds 2009
NASA Earth Observatory / Foter / Public domain

In the past, the university had installed the voxco software in a PC lab that was equipped with headsets and landlines. But the program never worked well and became de facto unusable once the service contract waterminated. Looking for alternatives when we moved into a new building, we came across queXS, an open source CATI software that is based on limesurvey. Limesurvey had worked well for us in the past, so we gave queXS a spin and rather liked it. The only remaining problem was that our IT support could not setup the necessary servers and patch them into the university’s voice over ip infrastructure in time (we want to be in the field well before the Euro 2014 campaign takes off in two weeks or so). So we got in touch with ACSPRI, the Australian Consortium for Social and Political Research Incorporated, which offers access to a Amazon cloud-based installation of queXS that can be rented on a monthly basis for a reasonable fee. ACSPRI also helped us to find a German VOIP provider whose network we will use to place the calls.

Now our “studio” is still based in a university PC lab. But this is mostly an issue of convenience, and of easy supervision. In fact, it could be run on laptops or even tablet computers anywhere on the planet. The software is browser-based and hosted in some unknown, unmarked data centre somewhere. Connectivity to German landlines is provided through software in another data centre, and this whole virtualised infrastructure is supported and maintained from the other end of the world. Apart from the headsets, the only tangible part of the studio is a bunch of pen-drives that hold the interviewers’ access codes. Eerie, isn’t it?

The tests went well, but will it work in practice? I’ll keep you posted.