Understanding Society

The challenge

The Understanding Society COVID-19 study needed to meet an urgent need for data on COVID-19, so researchers could study the short- and longer-term effects of the pandemic on the UK and its population. This required rapid data collection techniques and a quick turnaround from the UK Data Archive to make the data available as soon as possible.

About the research

The Understanding Society COVID-19 study, 2020 is a panel study of households that aims to facilitate research on the experiences and reactions of the UK population to the COVID-19 pandemic. The survey, which is run by the Institute of Social and Economic Research (ISER), is ongoing. The first wave was fielded in April 2020, with monthly waves until July 2020. From September 2020 onwards the survey is fielded every two months. The
study complements the annual interviews from the core annual Understanding Society survey.

The survey was developed specifically for the COVID-19 pandemic and utilises rapid data collection techniques. It has been funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and the Health Foundation. The questionnaire is implemented as a web survey, fielded by Ipsos MORI. In some months there is an additional telephone survey for households without internet access, fielded by Kantar.

All adult sample members aged 16+ and who had taken part in one of the two last waves of the main Understanding Society study were invited to participate. An impressive 17,450 participants completed the survey in the First Wave, which was deposited within a month of data collection (SN 8644).

The content for the COVID-19 questionnaires was developed rapidly by the Understanding Society team who later sought to include proposed content from researchers and analysts from a wide range of research expertise.

The 20-minute questionnaire includes core content repeated at each data collection to track changes through the pandemic, as well as rotating content.
The content focuses on the core priority areas of the Understanding Study:

  • employment
  • finance
  • health
  • family
  • education
  • civic engagement

In addition to questions about their own lives, adults answer questions about their children. however, in wave 4, 6 and 8 children aged 10-15 years were
provided with their own paper survey.

About the data

The main data are available from the UK Data Service catalogue under End User Licence conditions, ready for download by all registered users for non-commercial projects. This survey complements the Understanding Society series (the United Kingdom Household Longitudinal Study) which began in 2009, which also includes its predecessor, the British Household Panel Survey (BHPS), which dates from 1991. In order to gain background information on the participants and their households, the COVID related data can be linked to the core survey data (SN 6614).


Archiving challenges

Undertaking rapid data collection, online, in such circumstances, was impressive. The longstanding relationship developed between ISER and the UK Data Archive – dating back some 30 years – enabled the data to be shared within weeks of it being collected.

Key factors that facilitated a quick turnaround and publishing in an exceptional timeframe were:

  • Detailed and advance discussions with the Service regarding documentation and data deposit requirements. ISER Research Data Manager, Graham Jolliffe, advises other data creators to “Open a dialogue with UKDS as early as possible and maintain it. It is important that realistic release dates are in place and that both parties can work to achieve them. When depositing data it should be as clean as possible and in a format that UKDS are happy with. All user-facing documentation should also already exist at this point. A good tip, especially for data creators who have not deposited anything before is to go through the UKDS online data submission documents well in advance of depositing because that provides pointers to making sure that all the information needed is available”.
  • Anonymisation strategies were already well understood by the data owners and the data could be prepared according to existing protocols.
  • Well prepared documentation and data were available that facilitated a quick processing turnaround. Cristina Magder, Senior Data Curation and
    Publishing Officer, who prepared the data for sharing added that: “Communication is key and the quick turnaround for the COVID-19 data proves this. Graham has initiated the discussion about this new study a couple of months before the original deposit, making it easy to plan in advance. The great quality of both the documentation and data, as well as the provision of complete catalogue metadata made the curation and publishing processes swift and straightforward”.
  • The need for timely data on COVID-19 to be made available to researchers. The urgency to study short- and longer-term effects on the UK and its
    population provided the impetus for the Service to prioritise this deposit and push it to the front of their processing queue.

Reuse and publications

To better understand this pandemic, this dataset is being used widely among the research community, with many publications already produced. Several significant findings have already started to emerge.

A paper published by Breen and Ermisch in medRxiv revealed that the chances of infection increase with a person’s education level are lower and declining with age among those aged over 55. They were also higher in the West Midlands and London and lower in the North East than in the rest of the country and tended to increase with regional population density. ‘Estimating variation of Covid-19 ‘infection’ in the population: results from Understanding Society’s (UKHLS) first monthly covid-19 survey’

A second finding published by Niedzwiedz et al. in the BMJ Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health) suggests that psychological distress increased during the initial phase of lockdown. Women, young adults, people from an Asian background and degree educated were the adversely affected groups: ‘Mental health and health behaviours before and during the initial phase of the COVID-19 lockdown: longitudinal analyses of the UK Household Longitudinal Study’.

Thirdly, while the lockdown may have adverse consequences for many, a Centre for Population Change Policy Briefing found it to strengthen the parent-
child relationship in many families: ‘How has the Covid-19 crisis impacted parents’ relationships with their children?

Finally, the economic impact of the pandemic in the UK has also been explored using this data set. Brewer and Gardiner published a paper in the Oxford review of Economic Policy that discusses the impact of UK government initiatives, such as job retention scheme, self-employment income support scheme and increases in universal credits on the living standards of the people: ‘The initial impact of COVID-19 and policy responses on household incomes’

Read on

Follow this link to find the UK Data Service’s guidance on preparing data for deposit.