Conducting semi-structured interviews during COVID-19: Prioritizing safety in data collection for the AIRP Project

July 27, 2021

By Shelby Elkes, Emily Lam, Juanita Mora, Shreemouna Gurung, Atiya Mahmood


The Aging in the Right Place (AIRP) project (funded by CMHC & SSHRC) seeks to identify supports for older persons experiencing homelessness (OPEH), as well as evaluate promising practices that promote “aging in the right place” for OPEH. With the launch of data collection in October 2020 amid the global COVID-19 pandemic, the Vancouver research team has diligently worked towards developing measures that uphold safety while collecting quality data.  

Interviews with staff and management at the promising practice site are one of the core components of the project’s data collection. Providers are employees of the promising practice organization who have knowledge of the program or work closely with people enrolled in the program, and they hold valuable information regarding affordability, barriers to accessibility of resources, and the overall impact they see the promising practice has on clients. The AIRP study data collection methods include semi-structured qualitative interviews with staff, centred around the themes of social connection, housing stability, and sense of home, control, and safety, among others. Considering the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and restrictions, the semi-structured interviews were conducted online instead of in the standard face-to-face format. Providers were given the option to conduct the interview over the phone or through Zoom, a video-conferencing software. Interviews were scheduled with five providers at the promising practice site and were all conducted by one interviewer from the Vancouver team.

Prior to the interviews, the Vancouver research team facilitated on-going conversation with the provider via email which confirmed the date, time, and preferred method of interview, whether through phone or video-conferencing communications. This not only allowed the interviewer to provide an overview structure of the interview, explain informed consent, and supply all necessary information and materials beforehand, but it also helped establish a comfortable relationship between the interviewer and the provider. Each interview lasted around one hour, ending with an opportunity for providers to ask any questions or express additional comments. 

To comply with the public health orders of social distancing, the Vancouver research team adapted to the use of various video-conferencing software. The interviewer identified various benefits of a virtual interview format when compared to a traditional in-person interview. For instance, video-conferencing platforms, such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams, allow substantial face-to-face interaction while minimizing contact and reducing the risk of COVID-19. The video features enabled interviewers to capture body language and other important nonverbal cues of the providers. The Zoom features (e.g., enabling closed captioning and live transcription) also helped research assistants with transcribing the provider interviews; as a result, the time required to transcribe was significantly reduced, and subsequently the analysis process could begin much earlier than expected. Other built-in features of Zoom and Microsoft Teams (e.g., recording) was noted as an added benefit since in-person interviews require a separate recording device. For ethics purposes, all the recordings were saved to a secure drive to maintain confidentiality of the providers.