Supporting fieldwork applications to understand impact of land restitution

3 Feb 2021 - 14:00

The Native Land Act of 1913 allocated approximately 87% of South Africa’s land to whites, including most of the fertile and productive lands, leaving the black population with marginal and relatively unproductive land. Image source: World Bank via Flickr (creative commons)

The Native Land Act of 1913 allocated approximately 87% of South Africa’s land to whites, including most of the fertile and productive lands, leaving the black population with marginal and relatively unproductive land. via Flickr (creative commons)

The South African Land Restitution Programme offers redress to South Africans and their descendants who were dispossessed of their property by the racially motivated legislation of the early 1900s. The Land Restitution Evaluation Survey (LRES) was established to evaluate the impact of the Land Restitution Programme on the economic, social and psychological outcomes experienced by the beneficiaries. This process involves fieldworkers traveling to remote areas all over the country to collect survey data. eResearch played a pivotal role in supporting the development of two novel survey applications, for in-field data collection and post-field sample management.

The Natives Land Act of 1913 was one of the darkest points in South Africa’s history. This Act, and other related laws passed in the subsequent years, dispossessed over 7 million black South Africans of their land in both rural and urban areas. In 1994 the Restitution of Land Rights Act (Act 22 of 1994) was passed. This Act entitles individuals and their descendants who were dispossessed of their land by racially motivated legal acts to file claims for restitution. The Land Restitution Programme seeks to undo some of the damage by offering a sizeable once-off cash or land transfer to dispossessed individuals or their descendants.

To better understand the potential impact of land compensation in lifting households out of poverty, and its effect on beneficiaries, the International Initiative for Impact Evaluation (3ie) and the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform (DRDLR), responsible for the Land Restitution Programme, commissioned a study by UCT’s Southern African Labour and Development Research Unit (SALDRU). SALDRU then established the LRES, headed up by Professor Malcolm Keswell.

Supporting fieldwork virtually

To answer its research questions, LRES is conducting a longitudinal study. A nationally representative group of between 16 000 and 19 000 individuals will be surveyed twice over a period of five years. Many of the interview subjects live in remote locations, difficult for fieldworkers to access.

“With a survey at this scale we needed an effective way of tracking each interview to ensure it is done correctly the first time, as it would be too difficult and time-consuming for fieldworkers to go back to fill any gaps,” says Jonathan Atkinson, senior operations manager for LRES. They also needed an effective way to keep track of the respondents over several years.

 

“Where eResearch support was particularly invaluable was around managing the secure data through the application development process.”

The solution to this lay in the development of two applications. The first is a case management system (CMS) which reports live fieldwork in progress. Once a fieldworker has completed an interview, they upload the questionnaire onto the survey software. It then goes to the server and is synced to a virtual machine, provided by eResearch. Here it is converted into the correct format for importation into the CMS, where some basic checks are done to ensure that everything that needs to be captured is complete.

“So before the fieldworker drives away from the house, they can open the CMS and check that everything was uploaded and captured correctly,” explains Timothy Brophy,  responsible for data quality assurance and database administration at LRES.

“If the record is green, they are good to go; if the record is red, it means there is a problem. The fieldworker can then identify and fix the problem before they take leave of the respondent. ”

Given the success of the CMS, the LRES team decided to develop a second application: a sample management system (SMS). The SMS is designed to keep track of changes in respondents’ contact details over time, an aspect which is particularly important in a longitudinal study. It also manages follow-up calls with respondents to check that everything was in order with the interviews. The SMS is where post-field data issues or questions can be flagged for follow-up.

“Both the CMS and SMS are completely novel for this kind of field research,” says Atkinson. “They are completely web-based, which makes them very accessible. Our researchers can be anywhere in the world and log in to look at the data, delegate tasks etc.”

Developing the applications

The development of the applications was done by an external development company called Busii. However, before any work was started, Atkinson reached out to UCT eResearch to support LRES through this process.

Pierre Neethling, senior manager of application services at Information and Communication Technology Services (ICTS) first set up meetings with the developers, ICTS representatives and LRES to talk through what each party could expect.  Communication protocols were established and procedures agreed for ensuring that all the documentation regarding security was in place. Neethling and his team remained involved throughout the process, providing support where necessary.

“Where eResearch support was particularly invaluable was around managing the secure data through the application development process,” says Brophy. 

Because of the highly sensitive nature of the data, the developers could not be given access to it. Yet they needed to design the application according to the data. On the advice of eResearch, the LRES team prepared manufactured (fake) data for the developers to use. Once the application had been designed, the eResearch team helped the LRES to set up a secure quality assurance server, which the developers did not have access to, where they could test the application using real data.

 

“UCT eResearch, through their support in the provision of both servers and virtual machines, provided LRES with an organisational-level application which allows us to roll out our project at a very large scale.”

“This meant the LRES staff could test and break the application and go back with queries without compromising the data security or risk a buggy application that hadn’t been adequately tested,” says Brophy.

Breaking out of a one-room mindset

Atkinson stresses that without the support of eResearch the LRES would not be where it is today in terms of infrastructure.

“When we began investigating hardware for this project, the standard way to go was to procure and manage our own, housed in a single server room,” says Atkinson. “UCT eResearch, through their support in the provision of both servers and virtual machines, provided LRES with an organisational-level application which allows us to roll out our project at a very large scale.”  

In addition to the scaling up of infrastructure, the LRES team noted the importance of the expertise contributed by the eResearch team, particularly around the security of the data.

“From firewall protection to POPIA [Protection of Personal Information Act] recommendations, we relied heavily on eResearch support, because this is not our field of expertise,” says Atkinson. “This kind of support allows us to innovate in ways we could not have otherwise done.”

Contribution to global knowledge

“Understanding the impact of this kind of restorative justice aligns exactly with UCT’s Vision 2030 goal: to conduct research solving Afrika’s problems that contributes to global knowledge,” says eResearch Director, Dr Dale Peters. “A harsh history of colonialism and racist rule has left scars across the continent, and across the Global South. Insight into whether the impact of this can be, to some extent, undone, through such acts of restoration is very relevant globally.”

“It is great to know UCT eResearch, through a collaboration of valuable support staff departments, are supporting research in this kind of way.”

For more stories like this, take a look at the 2019-2020 UCT eResearch Report.

 
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