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Surviving the COVID stress test: the leading experience of KOSTAT

Photo credit: iStock/Orbon Alija

The Republic of Korea’s success in combating COVID-19 has many lessons to offer to the rest of the world, and so has its national statistical system.  When the first shock of COVID-19 hit the country between early March to mid-April in 2020, Statistics Korea (KOSTAT) was at its busiest time preparing for several household surveys such as the household finances and living conditions survey and employment survey. Due to the complex questionnaire design, KOSTAT usually carries out these surveys through face-to-face interviews. The COVID-19 lockdown hence became a serious stress test for KOSTAT and its household survey system.

KOSTAT is not alone in facing the COVID stress test. A survey conducted by the United Nations Statistical Division and the World Bank Development Data Group in May 2020 found that 96 per cent of national statistical offices either partially or fully stopped face-to-face data collection at some point during the pandemic.

The statistical community has responded with leadership and inspiring stories of innovation.  Many national statistical offices have adopted innovative approaches and/or have turned to alternative data sources, with most countries adapting household surveys from face-to-face to other modes such as phone or web-based surveys. 

While COVID-19 will most likely be a catalyst for further innovation in household survey programmes, we need to reflect on what has been done during this difficult period. What worked and what did not work so well, and how to improve moving forward towards sustainable, timely, and cost-effective data collection approaches.  Documenting and sharing these reflections with others will contribute greatly to the entire statistical community.

This is why we reached out to Seoyoung Kim and her colleagues from Statistics Korea (KOSTAT) for an expanded paper on what steps it has taken in their household surveys during the pandemic, following an informative presentation by Ms. Kim at a webinar in February 2021, jointly organized by the Inter-Secretariat Working Group on Household Surveys (ISWGHS) and the ESCAP Statistics Division on the impact of changing the mode on official statistics.

The paper presents many important elements such as:

  • contingency planning for the household survey programme at the start of the pandemic,
  • coordination between the central and regional statistical offices,
  • the use of administrative records to validate and correct household survey data, 
  • assigning data collection mode to households and how the choice of the data collection mode varies by the socioeconomic status of households,
  • methods used to assess the mode effect.

At the end of the paper, the authors reflect on the lessons learned. They also provide a list of items that should be considered in the future. Notably, they conclude that mixed-mode data collection can be a good strategy, but successful implementation brings various challenges beyond just developing remote data collection tools.

We congratulate KOSTAT for its immediate and statistically robust response to the challenge of COVID-19  and thank them for documenting and sharing their experiences.  The authors are also grateful for input from Mr. Kieran Walsh, ILO Statistics Division, and guidance from Francesca Perucci, United Nations Statistics Division.


Key words: COVID-19 impact, COVID-19 contingency plan, mode effect, mixed-mode, data integration


Is COVID-19 introducing mode effects into your official statistics, 1 February 2021

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Gemma Van Halderen
Former Director - Statistics Division
Haoyi Chen
Coordinator of the Inter-Secretariat Working Group on Household Surveys
Seo-young Kim
Director, Statistics Korea and Technical Advisor of Population and Development Branch, UNFPA
Kyung Eun Lim
Director, Welfare Statistics Division, Statistics Korea
Taejick Lee
Deputy Director, Statistics Korea
Statistics +66 2 288-1234 [email protected]