Diving into the Hawker Trade Network

Back in January 2015 I was asked to work on the Hawker Trade Network project. With all the ideas being created for me already, all I had to do was getting everything prepared for the field work.

For this project, we want to understand the business relationship between hawkers and suppliers. We conducted surveys with stall holders at three different hawker centres in Singapore asking questions about their suppliers and what type of ingredients they purchase from them. This will be followed by a second round of survey (that will take place this year) with the same stall holders asking whether they have changed their suppliers in the past 12 months and what made them change suppliers.

It was an exciting period for me, since I have never done any field work before, and I wasn’t really sure whether we would make this all possible in just a couple of months. It seemed almost impossible just by looking at the never-ending list of what had to be done. We had a tight schedule planned for each section of the project all the way towards the survey. Thanks to my wonderful colleagues, I wasn’t doing this alone. My first task was to understand a tool that we were going to use for data collection, Open Data Kit (ODK). Six more months to go…


How the ODK app looks like

Little by little I was figuring out how ODK works. ODK is a user friendly tool that can be used to manage your data collection. I’ve really enjoyed puzzling this out (maybe that’s the reason why I spent so much time working on it). In parallel we were having meetings and discussions with our collaborators about the project, the SOP had to be finalized, and we had to schedule in-depth interviews with stall holders! Were we going to make it on time? Three more months to go…

We had weeks of exploring and understanding how businesses were practiced at hawkers by conducting in-depth interviews with a couple of stall holders. This gave us better insights on what types of suppliers there are out there for hawkers and how big and complicated the supplier network in Singapore is. The in-depth interview also gave us a good idea what type of answers to expect and whether certain types of questions were appropriate to ask.  This has definitely helped us in structuring the survey! While making the final adjustments for the survey there was another issue ready to dig into, manpower! Two more months to go…

The advantage of working in the campus of NUS is that we didn’t have to look far for people to help us with the project. This was going to be a great part-time job for students that were thinking of spending their summer holidays with us. “This was going to be fun!” was my first thought.  Hanging out with (young) students, giggling about random stuff, and (of course I have to say this) learn from each other. In fact, it was very difficult to select only a few students out of the many applicants we received in a short period. In total it took us only less than a month to eventually select 6 students (but I wish I could take them all) that we were going to train to become great interviewers! One more month to go…

With the help of my colleagues we trained our part-timers in conducting the survey. We had an SOP for them to go through, did a few mock interviews with each other to familiarize with the survey, and created creative packages of information (see picture) to distribute to the stall holders.  They seemed very excited about it I guess, or maybe you can judge this yourself based on the photos :-). One more week to go…

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 Our part-timers were very busy doing their work. ( They were not on Facebook but testing out the ODK app on their phones 🙂 )

All ready and set to go! After months of getting everything prepared, we were ready to hit the road and start with the survey!

Week one… There we were, at our first hawker centre, overwhelmed with the smell of good food, the metal sounds of pots and pans, the chattering voices of people. We patiently waited until it was getting less busy and there were less customers ordering food. Gradually each team of two people approached the first stall holders and ended up with a handful of surveys in the first week, but a whole bunch of surveys scheduled already for the upcoming weeks!

Week two… Another hawker centre was included this week! Surveys, here we come! We were all high spirited going from one survey to another. Week two was the first intense week we were all experiencing. Our part-timers were starting to feel more confident in approaching the stall holders and doing the surveys. Watsapp traffic was getting busier. Eight hours of non-stop surveys, and still great food for lunch and to bring home!

Week three… The third hawker centre was included! At this time we had already approached half of the stall holders and it seemed that we were still ahead of our schedule, but days were getting longer and everybody was starting to feel tired, it was surveying and surviving! The excitement level has dropped and there were more and more gaps between one survey and the next one. During the breaks we got the opportunity to get to know each other better and shared funny stories. Unfortunately, taxi rides that were taking us from and to hawker centres were getting more bored since everybody was sleeping.

Week four… We were almost done with the survey! A few more surveys here and there, more stories to share, more hawker food to eat, more time to take selfies. We were doing our final checks to make sure we didn’t miss out on stall holders and slowly filed all the documents and checked our data. We couldn’t believe time went so fast, and soon we were writing Thank You cards to each other.

I hope you now have an idea how our field work for this project went. The survey was a success! Thanks to our wonderful part-timers that did a great job but also to a lot of other people that have helped us getting this project off the ground. This year we will go back to the three hawker centres for the second round of surveys. Start counting the days again….

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 Our last get together! Thank you guys!

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