COVID Realities diary project
COVID Realities was a research project looking into the experiences of parents and carers on low incomes during the pandemic. Participants submitted regular diaries to describe their daily lives.
COVID Realities was a research project between April 2020 and June 2022, arising from a partnership between the Universities of York and Birmingham and the Child Poverty Action Group. The project was participatory – we were led by participants, with topics chosen and guided by them – and had the core goal of ensuring that the experiences of families on low incomes played a part in policy making about them. The additional impact and pressures of the ongoing pandemic and lockdown provided an additional rationale for the project – particularly given some early suggestions that "we are all in it together" (whilst emergent findings suggested that some groups were experiencing a much harder lockdown than others).
Our criteria were inclusive – the project was open to anyone within the UK who defined themselves as being on a 'low income' - and this resulted in a wide range of participants who were reliant on benefits, self-employed, or in part- or full-time work. Several of our contributors were key workers. We also asked that participants were the parents or carers of at least one dependent child under the age of 18.
What we did
The mainstay of the project is a website, in which people could enter diaries or respond to weekly video questions on a given theme. We also conducted 'big ideas' online discussion groups of between 4 and 12 diarists with the aim of generating discussions about the key issues in people's lives and the policy measures that have helped (or that they think might be helpful). At the core of the project was the idea that people could be involved as much as they liked; but should never feel pressured to do anything more than they wanted.
Engagement is compensated, with £20 of Love2Shop vouchers for one month of engagement (4 diary entries or video responses at some point over 30 days after sign-up) and £10 for each month thereafter. Participation in discussion groups is similarly compensated. Vouchers are used to avoid affecting income thresholds or any impact on earnings entitlements.
Recruitment has been through a series of processes seeking engagement from across the UK. Initially, we assembled a themed spreadsheet of current contacts and potentially interested or involved organisations, and sought to contact these where possible – drawing on personal contacts wherever these were available. It has been very clear that personal contacts and face-to-face discussions by phone or Zoom are by far the best way of describing what we are doing. We have also tried Facebook ads, leaflet drops, and have had national media coverage in The Guardian and on Woman's Hour. Local interviews have also taken place with local news stations and coverage in local press.
What worked well
VideoAsks (our weekly recorded video messages) clearly hit home really well. We can see through uploads and entries that some people sign up and then spend an hour or three working through every single one of these on the site. Not all answers are full and informative – we may get a single "no" to a question like 'have you been seeing family or friends during lockdown?' But there are real indications that this form of more personalised engagement is valued. VideoAsk responses comprise almost exactly half of all uploaded content as of late September.
Engaging through known contacts has worked well – when we have a 'champion' within an organisation who knows about COVID Realities and believes in our work, then this has enabled a much better dialogue, more effective communication of our message and more sharing of recruitment information.
Diaries have worked well. For those who choose to engage with COVID Realities, the diary method is clearly a real selling point. The potential for unstructured communication and writing things out has real value to some people.
The community is a big positive for a lot of people. We publish all entries that we are able to publish (some have 'researchers only' selected as a privacy option) and we know that diarists both get a great deal from reading each others' entries ("You are not alone") and also do have a meaningful sense of community, despite having never met. We have heard from some people who say that they have spent some days or weeks reading others' entries before finally posting themselves.
There is, beyond this, a sense of activism and being part of history. Several participants are activists. Others have said that knowing that their records will become an archival document and may be read in 60 years' time is hugely important to them. We have seen significant engagement from women who otherwise want to be invisible, too – through past experiences of domestic violence, in particular.
We also know that the personal touch is really important. Hand written thank you cards, gift packs, and sending out phone credit have all been hugely welcomed. People have not been asked; but have volunteered that they have used the gift cards for children's birthdays, for basic food and survival, for a night off, and to save towards Christmas.
We are engaging women well. Around 93% of participants for whom we have information are women. 100% of our 15 pilot recruits were women. We have not purposefully sought out women, but this may be a consequence of the talking mehods we have chosen. More than this, we are engaging well with single mothers, and families with disabilities (either of parents or of children).
Finally, we can see some real geographical patterns. We have engagement that is somewhere between disproportionate and outstanding in the North of England (from York to the West coast), Scotland, and Northern Ireland. We have far less reach in the South, though we have recently seen some sign-ups in London and further afield. This is something that I would like to drill down into; something is working here – we suspect it may be local enthusiasts and food banks, in particular – however we have not yet clarified.
We are continually reflecting on our recruitment and other processes. Facebook targeted ads resulted in no visible recruitment. A targeted drop of 550 professionally designed recruitment flyers yielded no results. A focused segment on Woman's Hour (Radio 4) yielded no new recruits, though an article in The Guardian resulted in a wave of interest. Cold-contacting organisations has also yielded a thin response.
In terms of our flyers, the first version did not prominently mention compensation or the academic institutions involved. We think this may have led to a slightly thinner response than a more visibly profitable and reputable flyer might have yielded.
We are also aware of some blank spots in terms of recruitment. We have been trying to develop an offline method that people can use to record and submit diaries but this has proven far from straightforward. Inclusion in Zoom discussion groups is even more difficult. We are not at all well placed to engage families struggling with literacy or English as a second language. We have discussed developing a phone line, but the resource required to staff and transcribe this looks to be potentially unmanageable.
There is perhaps another core challenge summarised here. We know what we are doing is very effective at reaching some groups –particularly women with wifi. Branching beyond this and identifying new methods and strategies potentially involves exponentially increasing time and resources to engage new groups, when these groups have not engaged with the project to date. We are consequently continuing to try to engage more marginal populations and group who have not engaged much so far: men, travellers and people who don't have English as a first language. However, we are also aware that the returns on time and the time needed to develop and roll out new initiatives are becoming progressively harder to secure in the face of other project priorities and routine work.
Geoff Page (Research Fellow, University of York)