Participants contribute a considerable amount of time, effort, personal experiences and stories to research. However, they are rarely updated on the results. Not only do research teams miss a vital opportunity to reflect on the value and accuracy of their findings, but it is also highly extractive and leaves participants without access to their own data. In our research on the digital worlds of displacement-affected communities, we wanted to make sure that returning findings wasn’t an after-thought. From the start, project partners (The Research People, GSMA and UNHCR) aimed to use a collaborative and participatory approach that placed a value on our participants’ time, input and perspectives. This blog outlines our journey with returning findings, our process, how participants responded, and what we learned.
The research and process of returning findings
Mobile phones are changing the way displaced people and the communities that host them interact with the world. This study aimed to provide a more holistic understanding of how displacement-affected communities are using their mobile phones in three humanitarian settings; Lebanon (North and Akkar governorates), Papua New Guinea (Iowara) and South Sudan (Bor).
The key principle that led the process of returning findings was accessibility; both in terms of what content we shared, how we shared it, and how to best facilitate participants to respond. We summarised the key findings for each context into bite-sized messages into local languages with simple graphics. We aimed to share findings through a variety of channels that would enable as large a number of participants to see findings. Findings were shared through WhatsApp groups in South Sudan and Lebanon. In Papua New Guinea (PNG), the team felt distributing a leaflet would be effective for remote participants. Similarly, in South Sudan, the team put up flyers in public spaces for survey participants to interact with the findings, such as the youth centre, mobile money stalls and the UNHCR office in the protection of civilians (PoC) site. To engage with participants with limited literacy, we convened focus-group discussions for participants to hear the findings presented, explore them in more detail, and provide feedback.
There was a broadly positive response towards the research study in the three contexts. Participants said they found it refreshing to participate in research on mobile phone use, an often-neglected aspect of their day-to-day lives. As displacement-affected communities where humanitarian organisations are active, the research participants were not new to data collection and had grown accustomed to needs assessments. One participant in Lebanon said,
The research is important and relevant as we are somehow tired of questions that are related to how much food we eat, how much money… We like that you are asking such questions that are day-to-day issues, which is a mobile phone. We acknowledge having complex issues but mobile phone [use] is neglected.
Participants agreed with most of the findings related to mobile access, COVID-19, misinformation, disinformation and hate speech, and digital leisure. Discussions also highlighted how the research itself may have heightened the community’s experience of barriers. In PNG, the overwhelming response was the request for digital literacy training. Participants expressed that while the findings were interesting, they had heard about different ways phones could be used, but they were unable to learn about addressing climate change, misinformation and financial wellbeing because the community lacks the support to use phones in this way. Additionally, the participants were pleased with the recommendations. They hoped the study recommendations would reach humanitarian organisations and those who seek to develop programmes in their communities.
What we learned?
Here are our top five lessons from disseminating research findings to participants in displacement-affected communities.
- Early planning: It’s important to plan early on, potentially at the study inception, for who will return the findings, the modalities, timing, locations and availability of the research participants.
- Participant identification: Returning findings in smaller studies may be more straightforward as there is a more direct link between the participants and data collectors. However, reaching all participants may be difficult for large scale studies or studies that employ random sampling methods. It is important to identify who you want to return findings to at the start of data collection.
- Allocate adequate budget: Returning findings will require resources in terms of time, facilitation, stationery and travel, among other expenses. The project team should ensure this is well-budgeted to ensure the returning findings phase is meaningful and not tokenistic.
- Training: The individuals returning the findings need to be trained to relay the purpose of this exercise, interpret the findings, and engage with the participants. Training community members to support delivering findings to their communities is a good idea, particularly when the research associates are not close to the study location.
- Participant engagement: Enough time should be allowed to share their reflections on findings. It is important to structure it in a way that different individuals feel able to share perspectives that may differ from others, and can help research teams to gather community feedback in as meaningful a way.