Skip to main content

What is a survey?

(go to Outline)

Most of us are familiar with surveys and are likely to have participated in several of them in the past. A common type of survey frequently done in humanitarian emergencies is a nutrition survey of children less than 5 years of age. In such situations, surveys are used to provide a snapshot of the health and nutritional status of the population or coverage of relief programmes. The technical name for these are cross-sectional surveys.

Cross-sectional survey

A cross-sectional survey is a collection of data at a single point in time from a specific population.

"Cross-sectional" means that it produces data at a cross-section, or single point, in time. Think of it as a snapshot picture. There are other types of surveys, but the vast majority of surveys done to provide routine assessment of health and nutritional status in humanitarian emergencies are cross-sectional. Most such surveys are conducted in a relatively short period of time.

One of the main features of surveys is that, instead of collecting information from all individuals or households in the community, they select a representative sample, and, based on that sample, produce an estimate of the indicators of interest which can be generalized to the entire population.

Assessment survey in Badghis Province, Afghanistan, 2002

An example of a cross-sectional health and nutrition assessment survey is one done in Badghis Province, Afghanistan shortly after the invasion by the United States in October 2001. A sample of the households in the province was selected randomly. These selected households were then visited by survey teams who interviewed an adult household member to collect information about the following variables:

  • For the entire household:
    • Prior displacement
    • Receipt of relief food
    • Source of water
    • Deaths in the household
  • For women in the household
    • Night blindness (a symptom of vitamin A deficiency)
    • Reproductive history
  • For children less than 5 years of age
    • Night blindness
    • Breastfeeding and feeding practices
    • Recent illness
    • Measles vaccination status

Teams then examined children and women in the household to collect the following data:

  • For women in the household:
    • Presence of goitre (a sign of iodine deficiency)
    • Mid-upper arm circumference (MUAC)
    • Weight
    • Height
  • For children in the household:
    • Many signs of micronutrient deficiency
    • Mid-upper arm circumference
    • Weight
    • Height
    • Oedema

To see a copy of the questionnaire and data collection form, click here,

To see photos of the survey teams gathering data, click here.