How I Learned to Love AAPOR’s ResearchHack 3.0

It was my first year attending the American Association for Public Opinion Research (AAPOR) Annual Conference, and I was feeling a little nervous. AAPOR is one of the most influential conferences in the survey industry. My goal was to actively participate in events and networking opportunities on the conference list. ResearchHack 3.0 was one of them.

ResearchHack is AAPOR’s version of a “hackathon”, where teams of participants (aka. “hackers”) were asked to devise a plan for a mobile app that would inform various uses of the Census Planning Database.

I looked at the blank ResearchHack 3.0 registration form and hesitated. To be honest, I’m a statistician whose focus has been on survey research methodology. Except for the statistical programming language R, which I’ve used for my projects, I know very little about coding or making an app. Me, a hacker? A coder? I don’t think so! I didn’t know whether I could make any meaningful contribution. I was a little scared, but I knew that it would be a great chance to learn, to work with great people, to get out of my comfort zone, and to truly challenge myself. I signed in. “ResearchHack 3.0…bring it on!”

I was paired with three professionals: a health researcher, a healthy policy program research director, and a director of an institute for survey research. Our team decided to work on a Census Planning Database-based mobile app to help any survey firm/researchers who were trying to design a sampling and operational plan for a hard-to-survey population.

Surveying a hard-to-survey population usually results in a very low response rate. The “main idea” of our app proposal was to utilize the Low Response Score in the Census Planning Database to help identify areas with possible low response rate for the targeted population. Then we would “customize” sampling and operational plans based on areas with different degrees of predicted response rate, with the assistance of big data analysis results or shared experiences from other researchers.

Actually, we had no problem creating hot maps to identify areas with possible low response rate, but when we had to create an app prototype to demonstrate how the app can help survey researchers “customize” their research plans, we ran into a problem. None of us knew if our proposed ideas were even applicable in an app! We didn’t know what adjustments we should make to implement those ideas at the app level. None of us had the related experience needed to make those calls. It’s like that feeling you get when you have an awesome idea for decorating a cake, but you don’t know the needed ingredients. I have to admit, it was a frustrating realization, and I believe my team members had a similar feeling.

The clock was ticking. We had to present our ideas to the public only 24 hours after our first meeting. The pressure was huge, but no one gave up. We sacrificed sleep to work on our slides and outputs. We wanted to be sure that our “main proposal idea” would be clearly explained.

Next, we adapted a role-playing strategy in our presentation to show the audience what kind of difficulties any researcher might face when trying to survey a hard-to-survey population, and what “customized” research plans could help if the needed technical assistance for the app was provided.

Although our ideas didn’t wow the judges (totally understandable due to our app-level technical shortcomings), we did win the “audience pick” award. We were grateful to them for appreciating the effort we put in to help relieve the pressure on all the hardworking survey researchers who have to collect responses from hard-to-survey populations.

ResearchHack 3.0 was certainly tough, but very rewarding, too. You couldn’t ask for more from this crazy and unforgettable experience!

After the conference when I got back to the office, I shared my ResearchHack experience with the programmers in the Geo-Dem group. We had some great discussions. They gave me creative ideas that I had never thought of before. This is one of the great benefits of going to conferences like AAPOR. You share new knowledge and insights with your colleagues, which sparks more creative innovation. One day we will continue in the spirit of ResearchHack 3.0 and make great products for survey researchers, together. When that day comes, our blog readers will know the news. Stay tuned!

Kelly Lin | Survey Sample Statistician | Marketing Systems Group