Where are the children? The challenge of tracking in a longitudinal study of children

Anne Solon
Anne Solon, data manager for Young Lives, whose role involves working with Young Lives research partners to coordinate the complete survey cycle and coordinating the processes of survey design, piloting, training of field staff, data collection, data entry and data management, discusses the challenge of tracking in a longitudinal study of children. Young Lives is an international study of childhood poverty, involving 12,000 children in 4 countries over 15 years. It is led by a team in the Department of International Development at the University of Oxford in association with research and policy partners in the 4 study countries: Ethiopia, India, Peru and Vietnam.

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I’m in an odd position of having to ask myself this question both personally and professionally. At home, I wonder why my two children are so quiet and where they are in the house. When they are at the childminder’s I wonder if they are at the park, a play group or if they got dropped off at school okay. At work, the concern is slightly different with the children in the Young Lives project. Over the years we have found them (or not found them) in numerous locations and circumstances. It’s eye opening to relate their circumstances to that of your own children. I can easily predict where my children will be, or are likely to be, over the next 18 years. Their home address is, for all intents and purposes, ‘settled’.

What about the 12,000 Young Lives children and families spread out over Ethiopia, India, Vietnam and Peru?

Why we track? Young Lives is following 12,000 children over 15 years. We have completed 4 rounds of data collection and are shortly beginning our 5th round. This means on average there would be 3 years between survey rounds where we would not normally be in contact with our children and families. By introducing a tracking visit in between survey rounds we can maintain contact with the families and children over a shorter period of time. This increased level of contact provides multiple benefits:

  • Maintaining and strengthening our relationships with the Young Lives children and families
  • Reduced time during the fieldwork locating children and households
  • Easier to maintain contact with persons who do short but frequent movements
  • An opportunity to feedback about the project and ensure our respondents are happy to continue to participate

How do we track?

Our countries are varied in size, demography, and economic status and no single approach for locating the children between rounds works universally across the four countries. Combine this with children who are growing older and becoming young adults thus migrating on their own and more likely not to have their own permanent ‘home address’ we have to be adaptable and quick thinking.

Young Lives first visited these families in 2002 when the two cohorts of children were 1 and 8 yrs. old. Where are they now 13 years later at the ages of 14 and 21 yrs.? And can we predict where they’ll be in another 3 years? In order to track our children we have implemented a system where we visit them at their last known address approximately every 1.5 to 2 years either on what’s known as a tracking visit or to conduct the main survey work. We ask questions confirming their current address, known contacts in the area (family/friends), if they expect to be moving in the foreseeable future and if so, where they would likely move and why. We have managed to keep our attrition rates across all countries and both cohorts below 6% but it hasn’t been easy or cheap. This is one of Young Lives mostly costly activities – but at the same time it’s most vital.

Our ability to successfully keep our attrition rates low is down to the country teams. In each country we have a Principal Investigator who, among many other responsibilities, is charged with cohort maintenance. They manage a well-trained and dedicated team of fieldworkers who travel by plane, car, bus, tuk tuk, cart, boat, horse, donkey, and on foot to track our children across their respective countries. They visit family and friends of children who they cannot track in an effort to get a location and/or contact information for the child. They use mobile phones and emails as a mean of communication where possible.

On the back end each country has a data manager who collates, enters and manages these data. They update any contact information and keep records of new addresses of the children. They code according to the children’s movement history across sites and across rounds in order to predict movement of children in the future.

Can we predict their locations?

In addition to the above, the country teams must predict situations our children will be in at the age we are planning to visit them. For instance, will a large portion of our female ‘children’ be married at 21yrs? And will their in-laws continue to support their involvement in Young Lives? Will the boys be enrolled in national service and if so, can we still visit them during data collection? Do they migrate for work? Is this work full time or seasonal? Are they at school? Did they move with their families, alone or with friends?

Find out information on how we manage and plan our field work and here for more information on our tracking processes.

The Young Lives datasets from the first three rounds of household and child surveys are publicly archived and available to download from the UK Data Service, along with the documentation and questionnaires for each survey round. We completed fieldwork for the Round 4 survey in early 2014 and have released preliminary findings. Following data cleaning, we expect to archive the data in early 2016. The UK Data Service has developed a Study Guide for Young Lives which acts as an entry point for the data

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