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Center for Survey Research Celebrates 25 Years of Success

UPDATED, Sept. 11, 2013, 10:20 p.m., to make minor revisions throughout.

On Monday, the Center for Survey Research at the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service celebrated its 25th year with cake, song, commemorative T-shirts, a keynote address and reminiscences of its good work and how far technology has come.

Headed by co-founding director Thomas Guterbock – who recalls pounding nails into the cinderblock walls of New Cabell Hall to upgrade an interview room set up in September 1988 – the center conducts research with local governments, academic and health institutions, businesses and nonprofits. It has completed more than 400 projects in the past 25 years.

The Center for Survey research was born as the result of an equipment grant to the College of Arts & Sciencessociology and government and foreign affairs (now politics) departments, Guterbock recalled during Monday’s gathering at 2400 Old Ivy Road, where the center now resides.  The grant allowed Guterbock and co-founder Steven Finkel (now at the University of Pittsburgh) to gather volunteer interviewers together to conduct surveys about community issues using computer-assisted telephone interviewing, or CATI, a method in which “questions appear on the computer screen in programmed sequence” allowing interviewers to record answers and receive instantaneous data entry.

The center has since become a self-supporting entity of the University, fulfilling both its own mission along with that of the Cooper Center. Its mission is to provide “survey-based information that is objective, accurate, relevant, timely and clear,” said Guterbock, who is also a sociology professor.

Since 2000, the Center for Survey Research has resided under the Cooper Center banner. On Monday, Cooper Center Director John Thomas thanked Guterbock for the “substantive synergy” that has resulted in the “continuation of a fantastic relationship” between Center for Survey Research and the Cooper Center.

The synergy Thomas spoke of, as well as the survey center’s success, is due in large part to its staff, Guterbock said at Monday’s celebration. The crew includes 15 staff members and numerous part-time interviewers and assistants who work on an average of 25 projects each year.

As the Center for Survey Research has grown, so has technology in the world of survey research. These transitions have not always been easy, Guterbock said, but they provide the center’s staff and volunteers with exciting challenges. In the early days, challenges included the time-consuming use of the floppy disk, which in one instance allowed the center to send “disk-by-mail” for a project with aircraft software engineers.

New technologies have made the research process easier; the center conducted its first Web survey in 2004. As new projects present themselves, such as the recent research on local reactions to immigration policy in Prince William County, the center has employed multiple modes of gathering data. Today  an online tool for Internet surveys, Qualtrics, provides clients with rewarding results and research interpretations at lower cost, Guterbock said.

At Monday’s event, Guterbock displayed the original pink telephone message slip he received 25 years ago informing him that a new University account had been established for the center to use. Though you’d be hard-pressed to find a pink “while you were out” phone message at the center these days, technological advances have not completely replaced all old-school methods. The center finds continued success with traditional survey methods, such as telephone, mail and in-person interviews.

So what sorts of surveys does the center conduct?

The center works with state and local governments, non-profits and academic researchers. Some projects are oriented toward social science research, others are more applied in focus. The center also conducts its own research on topics it sees as beneficial to the public and the center’s research mission, Guterbock said. Examples of the latter include “research on the changing cost of conducting telephone surveys that include cell phones” according to Guterbock.

One project in particular complements the overarching mission of the Cooper Center, to “anticipate and forecast change and to serve as a resource to those who need to recognize and address that change”: the innovative Jefferson Area Community Survey, or JACS, Guterbock said.

JACS is an omnibus telephone survey the center performs semi-annually in Charlottesville and surrounding counties, allowing agencies to purchase questions in the survey and gain insight into the local community. Some survey results are shared with the public so all have a better understanding of individuals’ sentiments on issues ranging from upcoming elections to the economy to regional planning issues.

by Ashley Patterson

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