Data Collection and Sources

A combination of different sources and types of data is required to design and plan a sanitation response. Sources of information include both primary and secondary data. Types of information include qualitative and quantitative data. It is important to select the most appropriate methods in order to conduct timely, relevant and effective assessments. 

Key Actions

    • Be clear about what you need to know at each stage of the response and in what detail (in the acute response half of the whole picture may be better than the whole of half the picture).

    • Consider using a checklist (such as the Sphere WASH assessment checklist, see key resources), not necessarily as a questionnaire format but to ensure nothing gets overlooked.

    • Weigh up the advantages of qualitative and quantitative methods relative to your assessment purpose to decide which methods are appropriate and when in the response.

    • Use a combination of methods that are both quantitative (e.g. how many functioning toilets are in operation?) and qualitative (e.g. how do women feel about going to the toilet at night and what barriers to access do they face?).

    • Gather secondary data. Common sources of quantitative secondary data are the Demographic and Health Survey, the Multi-Indicator Cluster Survey and any existing Knowledge, Attitude and Practice (KAP) or Knowledge, Practices and Coverage (KPC) reports, as well as current mortality, morbidity and other epidemiological data from the health sector.

    • KPC and KAP surveys are the most common quantitative methods used in the WASH humanitarian sector to assess, plan, monitor and evaluate WASH programs but may not always be feasible in the acute phase of an emergency.

    • Choose between collecting primary data using pen and paper or tablets. First, consider the most convenient method for the affected population and then which collection method will allow quick and accurate analysis of the collected data.

    • Ensure that the competencies needed for quantitative methods are in place: specific skills and data are required (e.g. household lists in villages) to ensure the validity of the results.

    • Plan using the four basic steps to analyse qualitative data: (1) Organise data, (2) Shape or code the data, (3) Interpret and summarise the information and (4) Explain the information.

    • Triangulate information using different methods and sources and cross-check findings to minimise the bias of using only one method and increase the reliability of the data.


Data collection is an essential part of an initial sanitation assessment to identify critical needs (e.g. the number of people affected, specific vulnerabilities), key stakeholders, contextual information (e.g. soil and groundwater conditions, local sanitation standards and legislation, weather and climate conditions), the existing sanitation infrastructure and management arrangements (including gaps, access issues, hazards, damage and the overall risks to public health), current sanitation practices and cultural habits that might affect sanitation preferences (sitting or squatting, anal cleansing practices) and to identify available resources and local capacities to lead or support the response.

As the situation in emergencies is often dynamic and can rapidly change, existing information must be continuously validated and collected.

Information should be disaggregated and collected from as many different gender, diversity and age-balanced sources as possible and triangulated. The assessment should be coordinated and supervised by experienced WASH professionals and, preferably, undertaken by or with local actors familiar with the context and who speak the local language. Ideally, the team should be gender-balanced.


Primary data is gathered directly from the affected population. It is collected by assessment teams through fieldwork, most often through direct Interviews or Discussions with members of the affected community. It may also be gathered through other methods including Community Mapping, Transect Walks, phone interviews, Social Media and Email Exchange, Radio Communication and direct Observation. Primary data collection is an important way to engage with the population at an early stage of the programme design. It also ensures that the project is inclusive and relevant at the local level and that the assessment builds a holistic and accurate picture of the affected population.

Secondary data is data that already exists (e.g. reports, statistics, research or maps); it is usually available from governmental agencies, national or regional WASH cluster structures or other organisations previously active in the affected area. It can serve as a preliminary introduction to the context. A significant amount of information can be obtained using secondary data. However, secondary data should always be considered with care; the additional collection of primary data through direct contact with the respondents is recommended.

Selected Primary Data Methods and Sources

Selected Secondary Data Sources

    • Water, energy, environment, health, urban development ministries and local authorities

    • Census data and household enumeration

    • Demographic and health surveys

    • Global satellite image providers (UNITAR/UNOSAT)

    • UNHCR and UNICEF databases and reports

    • NGOs and development agencies that worked in the area before the crisis

Both primary and secondary data can be collected and analysed using quantitative or qualitative assessment methods.

Quantitative methods collect numerical data through surveys or by working with pre-existing statistical data. Findings can either be applied across groups of people, to explain a particular phenomenon, or to describe a characteristic. They are useful during the assessment phase as they measure coverage, knowledge and practices. Data collection methods may include structured Observation, Surveys and Checklists, polls, telephone or face-to-face Interviews. Analysis of quantitative methods requires some knowledge of statistics but software is available to support this.

Qualitative methods are useful during the assessment phase to collect and analyse data that reveals attitudes, perceptions or intentions e.g. to determine people’s perception of risk or the barriers to healthy behaviours. Qualitative data is what people describe or illustrate. It is usually analysed by identifying common themes and issues of concern and grouping them to draw broader conclusions. The results of qualitative data analysis should not be translated into percentages or numerical data without a clear explanation.

The best way to get a sufficiently accurate assessment is to use several sources of information which can be triangulated and, if necessary, complemented by further research. Triangulation compares several different data sources and methods to cross-check and confirm findings. For example, teachers, community health workers, children and parents’ perspectives on school sanitation can be compared to prevent assumptions from being made. Triangulation can strengthen conclusions or identify areas for further work.

At all stages the reliability of the information being collected should be assessed according to the following categories: very reliable (a source fully trusted for its methods and time relevance of its data), reliable (from a reliable source, using scientific methods and data reflecting current or projected conditions), somewhat reliable (a reasonable but potentially unreliable source, methods or time relevance of data).

Author(s) (1)
Rob Gensch
German Toilet Organization (GTO)
Reviewer(s) / Contributor(s) (2)
Dorothee Spuhler
Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology (Eawag)
Catherine Bourgault
Center for Affordable Water and Sanitation Technology (CAWST)

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