Data collection in a pandemic: Environmental audits for the AIRP project

February 08, 2021

Elkes, S., Qureshi, M., Lam, E., Mahmood, A., & Canham, S.L. (2021, May). Data collection in a pandemic: Environmental audits for the AIRP project. GRC News:

Featured in the Simon Fraser University Gerontology Research Centre May 2021 Newsletter. Read the full issue here.

Last October (2020) marked the launch of data collection for the Aging in the Right Place (AIRP) project (funded by CMHC & SSHRC). The goal of the project is to discover what supports older adults who are experiencing or at risk of homelessness in feeling supported in aging in the right place. This project includes four stages of data collection: (1) de-identified document review, (2) environmental audits, (3) provider interviews and (4) client interviews. Each stage involves gathering information on different social, spatial and organizational/management aspects of the promising practice. The data collection stages are designed to collect complementary and sometimes overlapping data on the promising practices. A set of aging in the right place concepts pulled from relevant literature (e.g. sense of belonging, financial security, access to community resources) is used to guide analysis of this data.

To date, the first three stages of data collection in Vancouver are complete, with client interviews soon to be underway. Preliminary high-level findings from provider interviews depict significant provider support at promising practices for clients. This includes providing initial move-in support (start-up kits for clients), helping with gaining community resource familiarity (grocery stores, banks, etc.) connecting with health providers, all the way to supporting in permanent housing searches. Opportunities for social connectedness was highlighted as important for clients, whether that is with other residents in the housing unit, with the community, or the housing provider. Most importantly, providers focus on person-centred placements, which means that they ensure each client is placed in housing that is well suited to their individual history, physical, and mental capabilities. Client satisfaction, in addition to rising rental rates in the market, has led to providers noticing a growing trend in clients wanting to remain in the Temporary Housing Program for as long as possible.

In the months preceding October 2020, the Vancouver, Calgary and Montreal research teams re-evaluated their data collection methods in response to the current global COVID-19 pandemic. These revisions were guided by conversations and materials developed by other research communities (such as Simon Fraser University’s Community Engaged Research Initiative (CERi)) to identify ways to continue to move forward with each phase using a distanced approach. With current video communication technology available, all stages of data collection were redesigned for virtual format with in-person data collection also kept as an option where possible. For example, the document review process included gathering information on the promising practice through involved-requests to the provider to share relevant documents. This also included reviewing the promising practice website for organizational and client information all these tasks could be done efficiently through virtual connections. Interview format with providers and clients were also modified from in-person to either over the phone or through the use of video communications software such as Microsoft Teams or Zoom. The environmental audits however, required detailed observation of the indoor and outdoor environment of the promising practice. This type of data collected is best done in-person. Thus, much attention and rigorous planning was involved to ensure the safety of research assistants, service providers, residents and community members during data collection. A backup option of doing these audits via Zoom was also developed for promising practices where in-person access was not possible due to the pandemic restrictions.

The Aging in the Right Place Environmental Audit tool (AIRP-ENV) and Aging in the Right Place Environmental Audit Secondary Observation tool (AIRP-ENV-SO) was developed based on existing tools, Physical and Architectural Features Checklist (PAF) of the Multiphasic Environmental Assessment Procedure (MEAP) (Mahmood et al., 2020; Moos & Lemke, 1996). The AIRP-ENV and AIRP-ENV-SO tools are designed to assess the presence (or absence) of built environment features that support aging in the right place for older adults experiencing homelessness or at risk of homelessness. This audit tool can be used to collect data on transitional housing, as well as independent housing with offsite or onsite (non-medical) supports as well as permanent supportive housing with onsite medical and/or specialized services. These audit tools were developed by SSHRC Research trainees (Shelby Elkes and Muhammad Qureshi) under the guidance and direction of Dr. Atiya Mahmood and Dr. Habib Chaudhury with the Department of Gerontology at Simon Fraser University. Montreal and Calgary team members also provided feedback during the tool development process. The AIRP-ENV consists of 241 questions assessing exterior and interior environmental features of the housing sites with an additional 7 questions evaluating built and natural environmental features of the surrounding community. Completing the audit (includes both the AIRP-ENV and AIRP-ENV-SO) takes a minimum of 3-hour onsite visit to each promising practice building site.

The Vancouver research team (under the guidance of federal and provincial health guidelines, as well as approval from Simon Fraser University ethics board) prepared for their onsite visit by purchasing personal protective equipment including face masks, shields, gloves and hand sanitizer. Research assistants also adhered to provincial and federal health guidelines conducting self-assessments and maintaining a 6-foot distance from each other, the provider and residents whenever possible. With these safety precautions in place, the trained research assistants were able to safely enter the building site and successfully complete the audits within the time period allotted.

As the AIRP research teams in Calgary, Vancouver and Montreal continue to collect data amidst the global COVID-19 pandemic, we will continue to work and be guided by provincial and federal health guidelines. It is imperative to prioritize the safety of our communities and strive to create a safe space to express concerns regarding the COVID-19 virus, both for the research teams as well as the community members we work with.  

Vancouver research team conducting onsite environmental audit in personal protective equipment.


Mahmood, Atiya, O'Dea, Eireann, Bigonnesse, Catherine, Labbe, Delphine, Mahal, Tanveer, Qureshi, Muhammad, & Mortenson, W. Ben. (2020). Stakeholders Walkability/Wheelability Audit in Neighbourhoods (SWAN): user-led audit and photographic documentation in Canada. Disability & Society35(6), 902–925.

Moos, R., & Lemke, S. (1996). Development and use of the Multiphasic Environmental Assessment Procedure in Evaluating Residential Facilities: The Multiphasic Environmental Assessment Procedure. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage