How scholars conduct time-sensitive research at warp speed
The Understanding America Study became a critical tool for gathering data on the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic in real time. (Image Source: iStock.)

How scholars conduct time-sensitive research at warp speed

The Understanding America Study, created and managed by the USC Dornsife Center for Economic and Social Research, enables scholars at USC and other institutions to quickly take the pulse of the country.
ByMeredith McGroarty

Key Points:

  • The Understanding America Study (UAS) is a panel that comprises thousands of people throughout the country who agree to respond to online surveys.
  • The diverse panel of participants enables researchers to quickly survey a representative sample of Americans.
  • The UAS is an increasingly prized tool for researchers at other academic institutions to accurately measure national public opinion on timely issues such as health, education, religion and work.

In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, government officials, scientists, researchers and the world at large were scrambling to understand (and contain) the virus. But some scholars were already turning their attention to how the crisis was affecting nearly every other facet of life, including the mental health of youth, children’s education, and small businesses.

One tool proved particularly useful for researchers to quickly gather and synthesize nationally representative data related to the pandemic’s impact: the Understanding America Study (UAS), based at the Center for Economic and Social Research (CESR) at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.

“By the end of March 2020 we were already surveying parents about their children’s educational experience,” says Anna Saavedra, behavioral scientist at CESR, whose research was widely reported by news media. Findings from this and subsequent surveys were reported under the banner of the Understanding Coronavirus in America study, a tracking survey that ran bi-weekly through June 2022 and every four months since. Findings from the survey have been cited frequently by national news media and policymakers.

Saavedra says that several unique qualities of the UAS make it an exceptional tool for quickly gathering data, including information related to COVID. The study is internet-based, so surveys can be fielded rapidly and participants can respond quickly and, in the case of the pandemic, safely. It’s also nationally representative of the country’s English- and Spanish-speaking populations. And having been launched in 2014, it has a long track record of providing meaningful, peer-reviewed research.

A flexible resource for researchers at USC and beyond

The UAS has become a highly prized tool for more than CESR and USC researchers; it’s used by scholars around the country to assess public attitudes on a wide variety of topics, including health, work and finances, cognitive ability, personality, physical activity and dietary habits, and religion.

“The UAS is available to any researcher interested in studying English- or Spanish-speaking adults in the United States,” says Arie Kapteyn, founder and director of the center, which celebrated its 10th anniversary on March 15. Academic institutions that have used it include among others Stanford University, Princeton University, the University of Michigan and the University of Pennsylvania. Public institutions such as the Federal Reserve and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau also use it.

The panel of participants currently totals more than 10,000 adults who live in households across the U.S. Households are randomly selected from a Postal Service delivery list of all addresses and receive an invitation to join the UAS.

Adults in the household who agree to join are invited each month to complete one to three web-based surveys, and they are compensated $10 for each 15 minutes of survey time.

Households that do not have a means of completing online surveys when contacted are provided with an internet-connected tablet. The panel thus offers researchers a representative sample of adults in the nation, says Kapteyn. “We provide statistical adjustments as needed to align the sample with the country’s population in terms of gender, race and ethnicity, education, age and geographic region.”

The UAS panel was also designed to be “flexible” to allow for the rapid development and dissemination of new survey questions and topics, said Marco Angrisani, assistant professor (research) of economics and one of the original developers of the UAS. Over the years, they’ve made it compatible with new technologies such as apps, Fitbits and air quality monitors, which allow data to be gathered quickly and in new ways.

“We aim to make the surveys kind of fun and easy to complete, enabling people to respond at their own pace — things that are really different from what national studies have historically done,” Angrisani says.

Kapteyn, who is also professor (research) of economics at USC Dornsife, says the strategy has worked. “Response rates are usually between 70% and 75%,” depending primarily on the topic, time of year and survey length.

USC Dornsife program provides “warp speed” studies

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the UAS was in particularly high demand among scholars who wanted to gather their own data or use the near real-time tracking survey data that CESR made available to research teams around the world on how the virus was affecting various facets of life.

One study, conducted by scholars in Florida, Michigan and France, and cited last fall in a New York Times article, assessed the long-term effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the mental health of people younger than 30. Another, by a Spanish researcher, looked at gender differences in the risk perception of COVID-19. And The Wall Street Journal recently cited UAS data in an opinion piece.

Felix Kabo, formerly a researcher at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and now the research director at CannonDesign, helped design a UAS survey on how pandemic-related government aid was distributed to Black-owned versus non-Black-owned businesses. He says he had been designing research on entrepreneurship before the pandemic, but the structure of the UAS allowed him to quickly pivot to examine how the crisis was affecting businesses in real time.

“We realized very quickly that COVID was doing a number on small businesses and entrepreneurs, and we wanted to collect data on how it was affecting them in 2020; we didn’t want to wait until 2021 or later,” he says. The survey’s ease of use enabled his team to design, code and distribute the survey in about 10 weeks.

“This may not sound so quick,” Kabo said, “but it’s like warp speed in study years.”

Understanding America Study is made to make a difference

Because UAS data are publicly available, they are often used, studied and cited by researchers, government officials, private businesses and others. Saavedra says that her study about children’s academic achievement during the 2020–21 school year was cited in correspondence between several U.S. Senators and former Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Another, regarding the effect of COVID on classroom learning, was cited by Orange County officials when they were trying to figure out an education plan for local students.

Now that the initial shock of the pandemic has passed, Saavedra adds, the UAS is continuing to track the crisis’ potentially lasting effects on mental health and learning as well as the impact of interventions to address related issues, by taking measurements on a quarterly basis.

“That work has gotten a lot of attention because it’s policy relevant — there’s $122 billion in American rescue plan spending, and a lot of it’s being spent on these interventions,” she says.

Angrisani adds that one of the core strengths of the UAS is how accessible it is to a diversity of users. “Being able to connect with different spheres is important to what we want to do,” he says, and it enables the survey to make a difference in the larger world beyond academia.