Several years ago, I was working on an evaluation team providing evaluation services to a local client. We spent considerable time planning the evaluation and met with staff to determine who would be responsible for submitting which data.

When the first quarter’s data arrived, we received data in Excel, Google Sheets, Word, and even a picture of a handwritten attendance sheet. Our team spent many, many hours processing and re-formatting data. During our planning, we had never specified how we needed the data formatted or discussed the best way to collect the data.

By the second year of the project, we had created a data collection strategy that included customized data collection tools. While we have refined our tools to incorporate feedback from data collectors, the time we spend processing data has been reduced by half. For example, we collect professional development training logs. In Year 1, it took 8+ hours to process and clean the data; two years later, it takes a little over 2 hours.

Developing a data collection strategy as part of an overall evaluation plan can help to reduce the amount of time spent collecting and processing data.

1. Identify the data you need to collect
Create an Excel workbook that includes the following fields:

  • Name
  • Description
  • Format
  • Precision
  • Acceptable Values
  • Instrument

In the “Name” column, make a list of all of the data you need to collect and be as specific as possible. This is a great opportunity to reflect upon your evaluation plan, the client’s goals, and any reporting you plan to provide. You can make sure you have the data you will need! Provide descriptions where needed.

However, if you are working with outside data collectors, be selective in the data you collect: if it is nice to have, but not necessary, don’t collect it. I often work with school districts, and my data collectors are usually teachers. I try to be mindful of the amount of data I ask them to gather for the evaluation.

2. Determine how you need your data formatted
This is especially important when it comes to dates, numbers, and names. In your spreadsheet, indicate how you want your data formatted. For example, do you want dates as 8/1/16 or as August 1, 2016? For names, do you need them as Smith, Bob or Bob Smith? Lastly, for numbers, do you want decimal places? If so, how many? Note this in the “Precision” column.

Lastly, specify acceptable values. For example, is there a range for dates or numbers?

3. Identify your data collection options
At your data collection sites, what kinds of resources do your data collectors have? This includes internet, wireless internet, smartphones, tablets, laptops, and computers. If they have computers or tablets, what platforms do they use? Some programs won’t run on Macs AND PCs! Or do you need hard copies of your data?

This information can help you to identify the programs or tools that best fit your needs.

4. Design your data collection tools
If your data collectors have access to the internet or computers, be prepared to set aside some time to conduct research on available tools. For simple data collection, creating your own tool may be the best route; however, if you have complex needs (such as protecting personally identifiable information), you may need to explore programs that have advanced security.

If you are using hard copies and plan to transfer the data into a spreadsheet or other tool, align the paper tool with your spreadsheet. This will make it faster to transfer data.

After you have your data collection tools designed, update the “Instrument” column of your data collection spreadsheet with the instrument’s name.

5. Create a data collection schedule
Once your schedule is set, share it with data collectors; you may also want to include a note for yourself to send out reminders to data collectors. For example, I send out emails two weeks before data is to be submitted.