NIU lab conducts telephone surveys

By Paul Wagner

A building located many miles from campus plays an important research role at NIU. The Social Science Research Institute located in downtown DeKalb houses NIU’s Public Opinion Laboratory (POL).

NIU President John LaTourette gave a press conference at the institute to show off this lesser-known aspect of the university. Located on the corner of Third and Locust streets, the institute also houses faculty offices and independent research projects.

Paul Kleppner, director of the institute, said the POL conducts surveys for NIU, the State of Illinois and private companies. Kleppner said it is not unusual for five to six surveys to be conducted at once.

Among other projects, POL has conducted a nationwide survey for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), assessing public opinion after the shuttle disaster last year.

The lab itself consists of a series of video terminals connected to phones. The system is called computer-assisted-telephone-interviewing.

The computer automatically dials a number for the researcher and displays the first question to be asked, as well as a list of responses. Other questions follow, based on the responses to previous questions.

Errors in the surveys are reduced because the information obtained can be analyzed as soon as it is recorded by the computer, said Ralph Smoot, director of the lab.

Most of the interviewers are part-time workers, consisting of students from NIU and Kishwaukee Community College and community members, Kleppner said.

The interviewers are trained for each type of survey to be conducted, Kleppner said. The training can be as little as a day. However, surveys of business executives require skilled interviewers because the interviews take 45 minutes to an hour to conduct and interviewer training is more intense.

The surveys are conducted during the day for business people who are called when they are at work, and start around 3:30 for the general public who are called at home. Typically, the general public is home weekends, Kleppner said.

POL’s surveys are not always kept close to home. POL has conducted surveys for the National Science Foundation, the National Institute of Education, Simmons Market Research Bureau and the Annenberg School of Communications at the University of Pennsylvania.