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What’s it like to be an International Data Researcher at ECA?


One of the trickiest parts of being an International Data Researcher (IDR) is explaining to other people what you actually do. Here at ECA, we use a multi-source approach for collecting data in over 450 locations around the world, comprising field research companies, expatriates working for client companies and a dedicated team of IDRs – and that’s where I come in. My role is to research and validate prices of everyday commodities, assess the availability of goods and services, and provide first-hand accounts of what a location would be like to experience from the perspective of an expat. Perhaps the best way of describing the job then, or at least giving some sense of it, is to go through a typical day’s work. I will use my recent trip to Monrovia, Liberia, as an example.

My day began with a drive across town to one of Monrovia’s main shopping streets, UN Drive. Exclusives Supermarket was my first stop. Pricing a supermarket can take anywhere between twenty minutes and one and a half hours - depending on how well stocked it is. For example, a large Carrefour-style hypermarket might have over a hundred items that need pricing, whereas a small specialist supermarket might only have four or five. You may even find yourself covering half the city in search of a supermarket that sells just one required item. Sometimes you’ve got to ask yourself just how much an expat would crave miso soup!

A short, hot and tiring walk down the main road led me to a cluster of electronics shops. Ideally, all the electronic items would be neatly shelved, with the price and specification (both of which will be recorded) clearly displayed. Unfortunately, this was not the case here, with a fair bit of digging around dusty shelves required to find items such as rice cookers and blu-ray players.

Monrovia is a location where many of the outlets are smaller and less well stocked, therefore, it was useful to visit multiple shops to give a better picture of what was available. I took this opportunity to visit two more medium-sized supermarkets, Stop ‘n Shop and UN Drive. Both threw up a common problem that can occur when working as an IDR; poorly labelled or non-priced items. You can spend weeks planning a data collection trip, fly for however many hours, locate exactly where you need to be in a city and find the exact item that you need…then discover that it doesn’t have a price on it! Luckily, the shopkeeper proved to be very helpful and took me through all the fresh fruit and vegetable prices - no questions asked. So on to the next item…

Service industries (leisure, automotive and domestic) are a key part of any data collection trip. Firstly, I needed a dry-cleaning price. These are never too problematic, unless there is a language barrier, and even then, some enthusiastic pointing towards some trousers and then the wallet usually produces the right answer. Other examples of this can include taking off your shoe and miming the actions of a cobbler to get a shoe repair price, or making a ‘Baaaaaaa’ sound at a butcher’s counter for the price of lamb – improvisation is an integral part of the job. Luckily for me, most Liberians speak excellent English and so no pointing or miming was required on this trip, which was a bit of a shame as I had been practising my ‘price of alcohol’ charades technique.

It was at this point that I stopped for a coffee and a banana, both essential ingredients for a full day’s walking in the heat. I factored in a coffee stop at a café reputed to be very popular with expats, so I could combine it with some price collection. Indeed, when I got there it was packed with people of all nationalities, speaking in a variety of languages. Menu checked, prices recorded and a double espresso sunk, it was time to move on.

Prices for items of clothing were next on the agenda, although when it came to clothing the Liberian capital wasn’t exactly Milan. Therefore, the next hour or so was spent getting the best samples I could find from a select range of outlets. Some locations have options to suit every tier, from smart designer suits to casual everyday wear. This obviously makes it easier to produce a clear and concise sample. However, Monrovia is more toward the lower end of the scale when it comes to availability, so it was a case of visiting selected shops and sifting through to try and find clothes representative of an expat in terms of quality and price.

Outside of the central post office I found a small roadside shoe repair stall, another service that is part of ECA’s shopping basket. I wandered up to get a price but no one was there. “Any idea when he’ll be back?” I asked the man selling newspapers at an adjacent stall. “He’s praying, so maybe 15, maybe 20 minutes.” Again, you can plan meticulously, but if the man who repairs shoes is praying, then the man who repairs shoes is praying. Fifteen minutes later, and one shoe repair price noted down, I was back on my way.

It is a common misconception about the IDR role that we get to enjoy all the things that we price, i.e. eat in every restaurant we pass or watch a film at each cinema that we visit. Sadly, this is not always the way. In fact, it’s often a case of getting in, a quick scan of the menu, record prices and then leave. As it was approaching the early evening, I checked out a couple of restaurants in the city centre that were popular with expats for evening meals, before heading back towards my hotel.

Once I had collected all the data that was needed, it had to be typed up. So, after dinner, I sat down with my Dictaphone and listened back through the recordings from the day - reporting everything that I’d found. Yet another entertaining evening listening to the sound of my own voice! A few hours later, it was time to take a taxi to the airport for a late-night flight to my next destination. After catching some sleep on the plane, I would be ready to do it all again the following day…

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