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Finding the Hard to Reach and Keeping Them Engaged in Research

*Kirsten Becker, RAND Corporation, Survey Research Group 
Sandra H. Berry, RAND Corporation, Survey Research Group 
Judy Perlman, RAND Corporation, Survey Research Group 
Nate Orr, RAND Corporation 

Keywords: hard to reach, tracking, tracing

How do you find the hard to reach and, once you do, how do you stay in touch with them over time?

Many groups are difficult to access and stay in contact with including people who are not clearly part of a household (such as young adults whose lives are in transition) and individuals or households that are very mobile (homeless, living in cars or vans, mentally ill and people who are avoiding contact with the justice system, immigration, debt collection, stalkers or others.) They usually don’t have a fixed address, are “cell only” and often only have cell service episodically and/or change numbers, and don’t appear in traditionally used search databases based on credit, utilities, etc.

This paper outlines methods for finding and tracking these individuals based on information that includes a wide range of personal contacts, patterns of travel, where they find services, and their personal preferences and habits that allow continued access to them. It also discusses databases that are useful in tracking these groups and how to access them. These methods involve higher costs, need to be approved by IRBs, and need to be carefully designed to allow access while protecting privacy and safety in complex and sometimes hazardous situations.

We also discuss how to establish the capability to do this as part of a survey effort – methods for staffing, outreach and rapport building, appropriate incentives, protection of privacy, legal issues, and maintenance of trusting relationships over time. This paper will draw on experience of the authors, the experience of other practitioners, and the existing literature and methodological guidance on this topic.

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