Away From Your Screen, Out in the Field¶
by Mario Rautner
In Short: As you step into the offline world, see what it takes to plan, run and evaluate your field investigation safely and effectively.
Simply defined, field research or field investigation is the act of any kind of information collection and verification for which you have to leave your house or place of work. This means that going out to talk to a witness, observe a protest, collect environmental samples (such as water, mud or plants) or take photos to support an investigation are part of your field research.
Field research is remarkably effective, since it often yields physical evidence such as film, video or sound recordings, which can make even the most controversial and complex issues easier to understand.
Field research is usually accompanied by other investigative techniques and research strategies. In fact, investigators often exhaust their desktop research before even considering going into the field. One reason is that field investigations are amongst the most time consuming activities you might carry out.
While digital or remote research can be carried out relatively quickly, field research and investigation requires planning, arranging transportation (anything from a walk to several expensive flights), and doing the investigation itself before returning home to analyse the results. Field investigations can take half a day, weeks, or even months to carry out.
Note: Because field research requires more resources, consider it only after you’ve exhausted all desktop research and remote leads.
It is likely that each field investigation will require different kinds of preparation, even within the same project.
Consider, for instance, taking photos of a building to verify a witness’ statement. Your planning and execution of this activity can vary>depending on the type of building – whether it’s a private residence or a government building, the headquarters of a company or an airport. In addition, the country, the city and even the neighbourhood where these buildings are located can make a huge difference. Depending on the circumstance, you might need to consider multiple variables even for the simple goal of taking a photo.
In this guide we focus on basic field research principles and related safety measures rather than detailed instructions. We use two hypothetical case studies, which are based on real activities, to illustrate how you might apply these principles in various contexts.
Example 1: Testing water for herbicides
This project focuses on a herbicide that was widely used in the production of soy in Argentina. After speaking to various doctors who reported elevated instances of cancer and birth defects in soy-growing regions, researchers suspected that high levels of the chemical, which is often applied over large areas from planes, were likely present in the drinking water used by rural communities. The field research consists of collecting and testing water and plant samples and carrying out interviews in the affected communities. While this project is ambitious and time-consuming, and while collecting and testing samples costs money, it is still within the realm of what citizen investigators and local community groups can achieve.
Example 2: Interviewing a confidential source
In this example, you’ve been informed that many residents of your community suspect that the local council has not followed legal procedures in a public contracting process (or tender) for the renovation of the local high school. Locals believe that a councilor tried to give the contract to a company belonging to a member of his family. As a key part of the investigation, you are trying to identify and interview sources within the council, to obtain evidence of any possible corruption.
These two example will illustrate the following guiding principles and recommendations for successful field research.
Why you need field research¶
With the increased availability of online information, more and more research can be carried out remotely, from your home computer or desk. However, some investigations require you to be offline and present where “real-life” action happens.
Field research can allow you to collect strong and irrefutable evidence. Information gathered this way is often harder to manipulate and misread than information collected online. In addition, the results of field research can better communicate the urgency and the emotion behind an issue. Evidence such as physical samples, photos, sound and videos can send a strong message and can influence audiences more effectively. Think for example about evidence showing oil and plastic polluting the ocean. It’s possible to research this remotely by reviewing scientific data or satellite images, but physical evidence of pollution impacting marine life can be much more persuasive than data alone.
You can conduct field research for various purposes, including to:
- Corroborate digital material (such as information on satellite images).
- Collect environmental samples (water, soil or air).
- Obtain, review, or copy documents that are not available remotely.
- Meet and interview sources and witnesses in their own environment, such as their home or workplace.
- Identify new sources that might provide information of interest.
- Expand your understanding of evidence you have already gathered.
- Corroborate or refute an initial hypothesis, narrative, or other existing evidence.
- Confirm information on products, such as bar codes or names of manufacturers, if you are doing supply chain research or investigating companies (see our Supply Chain piece in the Kit).
- Gather photographic, video, or audio recordings to capture details for documentaries or articles.
Skills You’ll Need¶
As with all investigative methods, it takes time and practice to obtain good field research skills. Curiosity, adaptability, patience, and a good dose of caution are valuable traits that can be of great help in the field. Other attributes you need to develop are:
- The ability to adapt to rapidly changing circumstances and to predict when a situation may change, even in highly stressful situations.
- The ability to understand risks and to mediate, de-escalate and soften difficult situations. For instance, you may be confronted by a security guard when photographing a building as part of your research. The way you react will determine whether you’ll have to abandon the plan or whether you’ll manage to turn the situation to your advantage and gather additional information from the guard.
- The ability to realistically assess qualities, skills, and weaknesses. As an investigator you should be able to admit where you lack skills and be ready to either postpone potentially risky work or to improve your skills and knowledge in order to conduct it. A heroic attitude rarely works in the long-term and exposes you to higher risks than necessary.
- The ability to “blend in”. Whether you are trying to get information from witnesses or obtain video and photographic evidence from difficult-to-access locations, you need to be able to relate to the people and locations you encounter. How you are perceived may make things easier or harder for you. Many demographic and individual factors affect how others respond to you. See the later section about cover stories for more details on this.
The research cycle¶
Most research – whether field or remote – follows a cycle of four phases:
- Plan – develop a good understanding of the objectives, logistics and risks of your field research activity.
- Act – the actual field research activity.
- Analyse – assess and reflect on research results.
- Reflect – compare your research results with the objectives of your investigation. More often than not, this leads to a new plan for continued research.
Particularly with desktop and other remote research, the boundaries of these phases are often fluid. In field research, they are much more sharply defined, because you will often be outside of your comfort zone. Whether you go through them consciously or instinctively, it helps to follow them and prepare accordingly.
Plan field research well in advance if possible, and consider the time needed and potential risks involved before you go out into the field.
Analyse the results of the field work by looking at the videos and images you have taken or at the interviews you have recorded and by reviewing all the evidence from you fieldwork. Take notes and write down times and places for particularly important facts or statements.
Once you’ve completed your analysis of the evidence, you will be able to consider whether you have achieved your research goal or whether the work you’ve just done raises more questions and new research goals. The latter is often the case, and if this happens, you can re-start the planning phase.
In fact, actual research looks much less like the image above and more like the image below.
Planning for field research¶
With field research, you often have to travel to and work in places you are unfamiliar with. To increase your chances of being successful, you should not only familiarise yourself with the research location, but also manage logistics such as transportation and places to stay.
If you are working in different countries, you need to think about the usual administrative issues that come with travel and accommodation, but also pay special attention to your equipment and the way you carry information on you as you travel across borders. For instance, there are regions where journalists and researchers are not allowed to enter without special visas or passes, so bringing obvious recording equipment or external hard-drives can raise suspicions.
Familiarise yourself with the geography of where you are going by using available map apps and platforms (check the Maps section in this Kit for recommendations). In some cases you might find it useful to consult internet forums or specialised travel websites for specific information about locations. For instance, if you are planning to carry out an investigation in a train or a station, there are many forums where trainspotters exchange detailed information including photos and videos. Check a range of sources when preparing, and try to ask others who’ve been there before.
On the other hand, don’t skip on preparation if you’re already familiar with the location. Circumstances may change, the issues you are investigating may create new conditions and risks or the people you need to talk to are unpredictable.
Set your goals and objectives¶
Your field research will be more efficient if you set clear goals and objectives for yourself beforehand. While each research trip is unique, there is a kind of formula for successfully fulfilling a research objective.
A research objective is usually a concrete purpose that describes what you are trying to achieve. Ideally this purpose is SMART:
For instnce, your objective may be to ‘collect photographic evidence of a coal vessel arriving in a seaport in a few days.’ Another objective might be to ‘meet up with and obtain documents from a confidential source helping you to investigate suspicious decisions your local council has made on a tender for a building project.’
A detailed field investigation research objective will help you to:
- Focus your field research activities and increase your chances of success.
- Narrow your activities to achieve your purpose, work more efficiently, and require fewer resources.
- Break down your investigation into distinct steps, each with its own objective.
- Develop and apply research methodologies and techniques to improve your evidence collection.
Example1: Testing water for herbicides
The objectives for this investigation are:
- Obtain 50 water samples from private and public groundwater wells over a three-week period after high levels of herbicide use.
- Follow scientific sampling protocols and ship the samples to be tested for herbicides to an accredited lab. Note that these protocols might be supplied by the laboratory you have chosen to do the testing. An example of a water sampling manual is this Protocols Manual for water quality sampling in Canada.
- Carry out and film interviews with local communities about the impact herbicide spraying has had on their lives.
Example 2: Interviewing a confidential source
The objective of the research is to identify someone working at the local council who is involved in project tenders, and to persuade them to provide you with information regarding the tender for the school renovation that may have benefited a family member of a councilor.
Plan your activities¶
Once you’ve defined your goals, your research activities will fall into place much more naturally. In many cases, your field research will focus on one task, and you won’t always need to come up with detailed task lists. On the other hand, if you plan on interviewing and recording witnesses, things may get more complicated. You need to think in more detail about equipment (recorders, cameras), questions to ask, and potential cover stories you might need.
For more complicated research projects, it makes sense to write down your strategy, what questions you have to answer, the challenges you may face as well as possible solutions to them. There is no fixed format for this and you can do it in any way that suits you. Keep in mind that the more complicated your project, the more complex and extensive your task list and strategies will be. Make sure to include who in your team (if you have a team) is responsible for which activities, what expenses to expect, and an estimated timeline for each step or activity.
Example 1: Testing water for herbicides
In our example, planning for the project is extensive and takes many months. It requires you to become familiar with the sampling procedure, to obtain advice from the lab that could carry out the testing, and to arrange the logistics for the sampling. In addition, you have to identify and interview experts and community members by phone before the trip. You also need to establish optimal testing locations from scientific data and conversations you may have with medical staff and scientists who are aware of the potential herbicide poisoning. In this case, you can identify experts by looking for scientific articles related to issues caused by this herbicide and its impact on the environment. Often academics are quite open to discussing such issues and are then able to recommend more people with relevant knowledge.
Here is an example of a simplified table with some necessary tasks for water testing, along with additional details:
|Sampling||Where to test?||Remote desktop and phone research to identify communities relying on ground water for drinking and cooking.|
|Sampling||Transport & accommodation?||Research best options remotely. You need battery-powered refrigerators that are large enough to hold the collected samples. Look at motorhomes (large camper vans) where you could stay during the field research.|
|Testing||What lab to use?||Identify potential labs (get price quotes for 50 samples to be tested)|
|Testing||Equipment needs & protocols||Talk to labs to learn about sampling protocols and receive advice on required equipment (bottles etc.)|
|Testing||How to ship samples?||Identify shipping companies that are equipped to ship scientific samples. Ask lab for guidance.|
|Interview experts and affected community||Equipment needed?||Compile equipment list including cameras, SD cards, spare batteries, microphones, car chargers, GPS, etc. Have backups for most important equipment.|
|Interview experts and affected community||Questionnaire for interviewees?||Develop a detailed questionnaire so you ask everyone in the affected community the same questions. Prepare by talking to existing sources about what interviewees are likely to say about the impact of herbicides on their health and environment.|
|Interview experts and affected community||Release forms?||Prepare release/consent forms for interviewees to sign. Explain what these are for and what happens with the information they provide. An example of such a form can be found on the World Health Organization’s website but there are numerous templates and guidelines available depending on the purpose (video interview, survey, focus group etc.) and people you are interviewing (vulnerable, minors, etc.). Read more about consent and how to address it ethically in the ‘Interviews’ section of this Kit.|
Example 2: Interviewing a confidential source
The objective of this field research is to identify someone working at the council who is involved in public project tenders. You want to persuade them to provide information about the tender for the school’s renovation. Some of your key tasks include:
|Identify staff||Is there anyone working at the council who is likely to talk?||Conduct remote research to identify people working at the council. You can use LinkedIn, Twitter, or other social media to search for the council’s name and look at people connected to it, and collect information about their backgrounds. Ensure that you are carrying out this research without being tracked. Turn your social media settings private and use the Tor browser for added privacy where possible. We recommend you set up separate email and social media accounts to use for conducting online research.|
|Contact selected staff||How to contact selected staff confidentially?||Do not contact staff through their work email or phone number. Instead, try to obtain personal emails or contact details so that conversations can remain confidential and are not tracked by their employers. See this resource from Nieman Lab for more information about how to protect confidential sources.|
|Interview staff member||Where to carry out the interview?||Identify a location that makes the interviewee comfortable but at the same time ensures that there are no chance encounters with anyone they know or are working with.|
|Interview staff member||Equipment needs and protocols||Ensure that your recording equipment is working and that you have a camera to take photos of any documents interviewees might share. A smartphone is likely to be sufficient for this. Ask for written or recorded permission from your sources and interviewees (including confidential sources and whistleblowers) before you start recording their answers. Inform them of how you will use their words and whether you plan to publish them. Agree to protect their identity if they wish to stay anonymous. (Read more about ethically addressing the topic of consent in the ‘Interviews’ section of this Kit.)|
|Evidence||Is there any evidence of corruption from the tender documents, company records or any other official information sources or databases?||Tender documents are sometimes subject to Freedom of Information requests, depending on the country. If you cannot obtain them through a formal request, try to obtain them from a confidential source.|
Prepare your risk assessment and safety plan¶
Field research is often straightforward and fairly intuitive. However, there are instances where it can become controversial or unsafe, and you will need to assess any potential risks before you set out.
Safety First! - Do your research
Field investigations carry more physical risk than working from behind a computer. Talking to people, filming, or using certain equipment can make you look suspicious in some contexts. This is why planning, carrying out a risk assessment, and considering the possible consequences of your actions is vital even if you are certain your activity is low-risk.
The sensation of being ‘in the field’ among your subjects, cases and events you are investigating combined with the risks may give you a rush. Field research is exciting, whether you are diving in the ocean, travelling across a foreign border, or exploring a new neighbourhood of your city. The idea that you will be investigating in a new setting may stir emotions that interfere with good decision-making.
To prepare for this, you can create a simple checklist for routine daily tasks. This ensures that things are prepared in the same way every day. A good checklist is:
- easy to read
- does not interfere with your normal workflow.
The items on the list should be phrased as commands: “do this”,”pack that”, “bring this”. They should be no more than one sentence in length. See some examples in the case tables below.
Risk assessments are a common exercise in a number of disciplines involving field activities, such as scientific research, information collection by non-governmental organisations, or law enforcement. The more complicated and risky your activity, the more comprehensive your risk assessment should be. Before starting, make sure you also have a risk mitigation or risk reduction plan. This involves coming up with ways you could prevent, respond to and resolve problems that might arise. This plan can help you navigate the potential issues highlighted in your risk assessment.
As with all other parts of field research, there are no strict rules to follow but make sure you have a clear plan established in advance, know who your important contacts might be and which individuals or organisations could provide assistance.
Tactical Tech has developed resources about risk assessment and ways to prioritise safety in your thinking while considering individual features, concerns, skills, and activities in Holistic Security, particularly in chapter one Prepare.
With more experience, risk assessment will become simpler. But in complex research scenarios and new locations, or when using a new technique, or when working as part of a new group, identifying and writing down risks in detail is a beneficial exercise. Risk assessments are always subjective: situations that seem risky for you may be less risky for someone else.
There are a number of categories of risk. Whether they apply to you depends entirely on the type of research your are carrying out, the location you find yourself in, and the goal you have developed:
- Environmental risks – Have you checked and prepared for the weather forecast? Is your equipment able to withstand heavy rain or extreme heat? Is there a chance that weather may impact your goal?
- Terrain-related risks – Do you have the right shoes and clothes for the terrain? Is there a risk of falling? Will the landscape impact your ability to use cameras? If you operate in darkness, how will the terrain impact your ability to do so safely?
- Research goal risks – If you are carrying out environmental sampling, are you handling hazardous materials? What could happen that prevents you from carrying out the research tasks?
- Legal risks – Is your activity likely to be treated as criminal in the context in which you are investigating?
- Personal safety risks – Are you likely to be confronted by someone such as authorities, security guards, or workers? Can you predict how they might react and what you could do to mitigate risks from their actions?
- Personal identity and health risks – Are you aware of risks associated with your identity, citizenship, race, etc. in the context and political climate where you are going? Might your athletic ability, constitution, health, or known allergies affect your activities?
- Logistical risks – Are your travel and accommodation choices suitable to the terrain and context in which you will be working?
- Evidence- and source-related risks – If you are operating in dangerous areas, do you have a way to protect and hide the evidence you have collected, for example backups on encrypted memory cards? Have you considered the risks your sources are exposed to if they act as whistleblowers, for instance?
- Family and friends risks - You might be carrying out high risk field investigations or getting closer to sensitive issues and people/organisations who may have a lot to lose if you uncover their wrongdoing. In such situations, consider the possibility that these people or organisations could also take a close interest in your personal environment. It’s not only yourself but also your family and friends who may become vulnerable this way.
If your activity includes interviews with confidential or vulnerable sources, make sure to consider the risks they are exposed in your assessment, and discuss with them any vulnerabilities they might face while collaborating with you. Check the “Interviews” section of this Kit for more details on how to conduct interviews as safely as possible.
Risk assessments are only useful if you are prepared to take action based on the plans and results of your assessment. Risk management means actively preventing risks from happening and mitigating their impact if they do happen. Its purpose is to minimise the likelihood (the possibility of it happening), severity (how intense it is), and damage (the effects it causes) of risks.
Always include the severity or intensity of the risks in your assessment, as this will help you create a stronger mitigation plan. Note that the severity of the risk is not the same as the likelihood of the risk becoming an issue. If personal or legal risk are significant or severe and cannot be adequately mitigated, you may consider not proceeding with your field research at all.
Note: The UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) have published a comprehensive paper on how to assess and manage risk: Risk Management for NGOs. While this is not written specifically for investigators, the principles still apply.
You can use the table from our examples below as a template for your risk assessment:
Example 1: Testing water for herbicides – risk assessment
Security is less of an issue with this research since no cover stories are required and your work can happen publicly. Nevertheless, you need to carry out a risk assessment and develop protocol on how to interact with authorities or industry representatives that have a stake in the issue.
|Risk type||Risk||Severity (1-5)||Mitigation|
|Personal||Confrontation with angry farmers / industry / officials||2||This is a legal activity with no cover story, meaning you don’t need to hide the purpose of why you are there or go undercover. Be direct with them. Use de-escalation training or learn some tips from guides such as Unplug the Power Struggle with Principle-Based De-escalation from Right Response. De-escalation teaches how to defuse tense and potentially dangerous situations.|
|Personal and Research goal||Theft or loss of equipment, data, money||4||Severity ranges here depending on what was stolen or lost. Don’t carry more equipment than you have to, make cloud backups of your collected information whenever possible, take precautions such as avoiding travel in areas known for violence and theft, avoid travelling alone.|
|Research goal||Equipment failure||4||If you are working in a remote area, make sure you have backups for all equipment.|
|Research goal||Samples spoiled, broken, contaminated||2||Follow sampling protocol closely, film every sample as it’s taken, ensure that you have a working chain-of-custody system for your samples (i.e. a written chronological record of how material – documents, samples, other evidence – is handled and by whom).|
|Environmental risks and timing||Heavy rain or drought might affect sampling results||2||Talk to test lab and scientists about when to carry out the research. Take note of local weather patterns in advance.|
Example 2: Interviewing a confidential source – risk assessment
In this scenario, security risks mainly concern the people you are trying to obtain information from as they are engaged in whistleblowing activities. It is your responsibility to protect your sources and carry out your interviews and investigations according to their needs and concerns. Do not pressure confidential sources into releasing information or carrying out activities when they are hesitant to do so.
|Risk type||Risk||Severity (1-5)||Mitigation|
|Risk to source||Risk to their job||1||Be transparent with the source regarding your intentions and objectives. Let them decide to what extent they want to engage or support your efforts.|
|Risk to source||Risk of being seen passing on information||3||Choose meeting places that are not close to their work. Set up secure communication channels using encrypted email or messaging/call apps such as Wire or Signal if possible.|
|Risks related to research goal||Sources may not be willing to provide information or might not have the information needed||5||Look for alternative sources and other ways to obtain relevant information.|
Before you go¶
It’s tempting to go into the field as quickly as possible in the hope of locating and collecting exciting evidence for your investigation. But if you are not properly prepared, you will likely come back with few usable results.
There will be situations where you only have one opportunity to engage with a witness or observe an event, so good preparation is vital. To gather the best evidence, consider some of the strategies below.
If your research is likely to involve interviewing people, you can simulate and practice this with people in similar situations. Consider carrying out the same kind of research at another location in advance, in particular if the activity is low-risk. For instance, if your research goal involves obtaining information from a port, public building, or construction site, you can test your approach at a similar but safer and more familiar location. You can also ask a friend or trusted collaborator to help you role-play various situations you may encounter.
Practice your research methodology¶
The same applies for specific research methodologies. If you have never taken environmental samples, used drones or a hidden camera, or if you have never done field research involving supply chains, for instance, start by practicing these techniques in places that are unrelated to your actual investigation, and in a low-risk environment.
Simulate what could go wrong¶
It’s much harder to practice what could go wrong in your research, since you generally want to avoid such situations. The best way to do this is to look in detail at your risk management lists and act out potential problem situations together with people you trust. For instance, one of you could play an angry security guard. You can also ensure that your safety and risk mitigation plans are working by applying them to daily activities.
This is a little bit more complicated if you are working mostly on your own. In this case, try to role-play with a trusted friend. Since you should never carry out field research without an emergency contact and without someone knowing what you are doing, you could try to practice with that person.
Knowing what is legal and what isn’t in the places where you do your field research is critical, and should be a priority in your risk management. Things like secretly recording a conversation with a person can be legal in one county and illegal in another. These laws can even vary from state to state within a country. Other frequent legal issues are the rules around taking photos and recording video, and entering public and private property. Research these laws properly and seek advice from legal professionals if you are unsure about the legality of your plans in certain contexts.
Note that sometimes there is a difference between what will likely result in your arrest or detention, and what is actually illegal. Instead of focusing on written legality, look for local guidance on what is most likely to put you on law enforcement’s radar, and how you can avoid it. Legal situations, even those involving relatively minor charges, can take years to resolve and may derail your investigation even if you are eventually exonerated.
Tip: Journalists and staff at NGOs as well as other researchers working in areas you are interested in are likely to have relevant information about the legality (or acceptability to authorities) of planned activities, and can provide the details of lawyers who specialise in these issues.
Create cover stories¶
If you carry out field research, sooner or later you will encounter people who want to know why you are there and what you are doing. This is when, in some cases, a cover story might be of use. This effectively means working undercover.
Using a cover story means you are fabricating a reason, justification, or entire persona when carrying out your field research. Cover stories can range from simple “excuses” you tell someone if they ask why you are doing something, to very complicated setups that include detailed backstories, which might even be confirmed by your online persona if someone attempts to research you. Cover stories have long been used by investigators and journalists to help them obtain information in the public interest that is otherwise hard to find and collect. We do not recommend you use cover stories if you are a beginner. A good cover story requires experience and preparation as well as knowledge on how various contexts and people can influence your evidence collection.
If you want or need to use cover stories while working in the field, here are a number of details to consider:
- Confidence – This is probably the most critical element when it comes to your cover story. You will be surprised about the extent of what you can get away with when you do it with confidence.
- Practice – Do not carry out research tasks that require complicated cover stories if you don’t have experience with easier ones. There is a significant learning curve and no matter how tempting it is to tackle a difficult problem right away, you need to become proficient in field research, and in using cover stories in particular, before you venture into more difficult circumstances.
- Plausibility – The more plausible or reasonable the story is in a particular context, the more likely it is that people will believe it. For instance, if you are planning on entering a port or a building, choose the role of someone whose presence makes sense at that location. Ask yourself if you would believe the story if someone else told it to you and test it with your friends or trusted collaborators.
- Corroborating evidence – Have some evidence that supports your story. For instance if you are entering a farm as a ‘birdwatcher’, you might bring a guidebook on local birds with you, and have a few photos of local birds on your camera. If your cover is as a businessperson or worker, make sure that you look like one.
- Background Knowledge – In most cases you should have some knowledge of how to act in line with your cover story. This might include knowledge of specific professional terms to make your story consistent. For instance if you are a ‘birdwatcher’ (as above) you need to know a little about local birds and birds in general. This also means that it takes time to develop good cover stories. In some instances, however, being ignorant can be the cover story itself. Done right, ignorance or naïveté can be the key to getting the information you are after or the access you are seeking. In such cases, it’s best to pretend not to know anything, to ask for help, and thereby to obtain information relevant to your investigation.
Safety First! - Cover stories
If you decide to use cover stories, you need to understand the potential consequences.
If there is a possibility that you might be questioned by law enforcement, security forces, border control, etc. you should check whether lying to these individuals is against the law. If you are travelling with a group you should consider that everyone has the freedom to decide when/whether to break the cover story. To prevent unexpected situations, you can agree in advance upon a point at which to break your cover (and situations in which not to break it) in order to avoid bigger problems.
Keep in mind that an activity that is fully acceptable in one country could have severe legal and personal consequences in another. It’s impossible for us (or any other guide, for that matter) to give advice on every local circumstance. Therefore it’s imperative that you assess the risks involved in your own research context. Your safety and that of your team, sources, and interviewees should take priority over everything else.
Plan your entry and exit¶
How you exit your location is even more important than how you get there – especially when things can go wrong. It is crucial that you know the surrounding areas and have a plan to exit quickly. When researching in remote areas, natural environments such as forests, and other poorly mapped areas, getting to and from them can be a difficult task, and will require careful planning, including the use of GPS (Global Positioning System) coordinates – OpenStreetMap, Google Maps, Google Earth, OsmAnd, and other mapping and geolocation apps can be very useful for this. Learn how to use these tools and geographic coordinates before you go. (See the Maps section in this Kit for more on this).
Tip: If you are working in a team, agree on one or two meeting points that are not in the immediate vicinity of the research location, in case you get separated. They need to be within walking distance of the research site. If you are in the field alone, you will need to have a contact who can take agreed-upon actions if you don’t check in with them at pre-arranged times.
In the field¶
Once you are in the field you will start to focus on collecting the evidence needed to meet your research objective. This evidence may consist of interviews, sound recordings, video and photographs, documents, or environmental samples. In order to do this you need the right technology and tools.
Having the right technology makes a huge difference in the field. Among other things, it can let you see over long distances, document witness statements, gain access to places that would otherwise be difficult to enter, and collect and process evidence in various formats.
However, technology is only as useful as the investigator’s ability to use it properly. The best devices can prove useless if you don’t know how to use them. When you consider that in many situations you will only have one chance to obtain the evidence you need, there’s no such thing as learning on the job. Before you decide to use specific equipment in the field, it’s vital to practice with your devices and simulate investigations and scenarios.
There are many situations in which researchers carry devices that prove useless because they have not practiced enough and cannot handle them properly in a stressful situation. Even experienced investigators may have a tendency to bring too much technology into the field. This doesn’t necessarily serve your research objectives, and can sometimes slow you down.
There are many tools available to help investigators in the field. They range from basic cameras to highly specialised equipment that may be critical for specific investigations. Here are some of the most common tools you’ll come across:
- If you do not have access to more specialised equipment or the funds to purchase it, a smartphone may meet many or all of your basic technology needs.
- You can use it as a video and photo camera, as a sound recorder, as a GPS and mapping device to record your movements, as a navigation tool to get to your location and back, and to communicate with members of your team who may be carrying out the investigation with you. For navigation, invest in an app that has good maps (such as topographical maps) for your territory of interest and that can be used offline, so that it is available in remote areas with little or no connection.
- When you are relying on your smartphone, consider your battery needs and have at least one spare (charged) power bank for it.
- Smartphones are limited in comparison to cameras. They lack optical zoom, do not operate well in low or no light situations, cannot record sound at a distance, do not allow for communication with team members when there is no phone reception or WiFi, and raise privacy concerns since they may collect information about your activities that you do not want to share. See Tactical Tech’s guide to using smartphones securely.
- If you are relying on your smartphone (or a tablet) for collecting visual evidence, try using Camera V, an app created by the Guardian Project and Witness to capture and share verifiable photo and video proof on a smartphone or tablet while keeping them encrypted. Camera V saves all of your images’ metadata and is used by journalists, human rights activists, and others working in the field and in high-risk situations, to capture and preserve proof of locations, times and events.
CameraV. Source: https://guardianproject.info/apps/org.witness.informacam.app/
- These are widely available consumer-grade cameras with lenses that allow you to zoom in on details like license plate numbers from a great distance. This means you can obtain relevant information without having to get too close to the subjects you are investigating, potentially decreasing your risks.
- Manufacturers include Canon, Nikon and Panasonic. Prices may range from 300 USD to more than 1,500 USD. You can save a substantial amount by buying used equipment, but make sure that the camera meets your needs. Ensure you buy a camera that has a GPS sensor and always enable geolocation when you take photos. Embedded GPS locations can become crucial evidence for your investigation. At the same time, be aware that metadata can in some cases result in security risks with regards to privacy and the protection of sources when it is not removed as needed.
- Also be aware that, without a tripod, video and still images will be shaky or blurry.
- Superzoom cameras can also replace binoculars in your research. Here, for example, is a video showing how much detail you can see with a 60X zoom.
- Taking images and videos from drones is becoming more and more common, especially since prices of consumer drones have dropped in recent years.
- Drones can be useful when it comes to accessing areas that might otherwise be off-limits. However, they are loud and intrusive, and in many cases the visuals you are after will only be visible from a bird’s-eye view. Nevertheless, drones are useful if you want to document issues such as large-scale environmental destruction (such as logging, visible water pollution, or fire damage) or if you need an aerial view of specific properties.
- First and foremost, make sure you know about local no-fly zones (some places might even have legal restrictions) and try to fly high enough so that the drone is not easily spotted. Drones flying overhead make people suspicious.
Balloon- and kite-mounted cameras¶
- These are alternatives to drones and can be a safer and quieter option, especially in populated areas or places where a drone would raise suspicions.
- Public Lab is an organization that specialises in developing and teaching about alternative ways to conduct evidence collection, including kite and balloon imagery, and various ways of collecting samples through field research.
Mapping with balloons. Image source: https://publiclab.org/
- Two-way radios (walkie talkies) can be extremely useful for communicating with your team when there is no cell phone reception or when operating a phone is not possible. Once set up, two-way radios only need one physical button to operate.
- If you use them it is best to use headphones as well. Be aware that their range deteriorates quickly in dense urban areas or forests so you won’t be able to use them at long distances. Note that walkie talkie emulation apps such as Zello still use cellular and internet networks, and are not a replacement for actual two-way radios.
Handheld GPS devices¶
- Even though mobile phones are increasingly replacing dedicated handheld GPS devices, these can still be useful because they are often very rugged, waterproof and durable even when dropped. A very useful technique for linking photos to geographical coordinates as a form of strong evidence is to take a photo of the GPS device clearly showing the location of your subject of interest. This can strengthen the proof that you have been at the right location, since the GPS metadata in photos taken with phones or cameras can otherwise be easily manipulated.
Tip: Always carry multiple charged batteries for each device. You will need them!
Some investigations require more specialised equipment. This could include mobile testing kits for chemicals, air pollution, or other environmental sampling kits. In some cases specialist cameras such as miniature, hidden, or night vision cameras might be needed. Take time to understand your investigative needs and choose the right gear. Don’t over-equip and avoid buying any gadgets that might seem useful at first glance but are ultimately unnecessary.
Photo, video and audio evidence¶
Photographic and video evidence is very powerful because it counts as objective proof, although it can also be manipulated. There is a wide range of photos and videos you might have to take during an investigation, including:
- Exteriors and interiors of buildings
- Movements of products/chains of supply
- Products of any kind (consumer products, industrial products, etc.)
- Your own activities to prove you have done what you claim you have
These situations might determine the kind of camera you will need. Your phone camera may be of use at times but will probably have limited potential in some of these scenarios.
If you need sound recordings, the microphones built into your phone or camera might not be good enough, so you should use an external microphone. There are many microphones on the market and you will need to research the right one for your circumstances. For instance, some can pick up sound from a great distance, others are better in close proximity, while still others are better at cancelling background noise such as the wind outside or air conditioning sounds in a room. Ask experienced users, or check available online guides on how to choose a microphone that best fits your work, such as this article Which Mic Should I Use from the US National Public Radio (NPR).
It is good practice to turn on your camera settings to include a time stamp, but ensure your devices are set to the correct time and time zone. Also enable geolocation on your devices in order to ensure your images and audio recordings have metadata that proves the location and time at which they were taken.
Image metadata can reveal more than you want it to. It may be possible for someone to use it to locate other photos on the internet that you or someone else took with the same camera, or figure out where you live if any of the photographs were taken in your home. While you may wish to preserve location information as part of your evidence, you should also be cautious about where and how you share the images.
We cover this topic extensively in the Interviews and Managing Sources sections of this Kit, which we recommend reading to help prepare your interviews. As a general rule, keep in mind that when interviewing witnesses in the field, either covertly or overtly, their statements can rarely be seen as completely impartial. Usually, you will need to corroborate their statements with other types of evidence from additional sources. Here are some reasons why:
- Witnesses may be biased and their recollection of events or of information may be unreliable, deliberately or not.
- Some witnesses may consciously seek to provide biased information to steer you in certain directions or deter you from your goal. Think of PR teams and spin doctors working for companies or politicians.
- Other witnesses may lie directly, or try to withhold information that is damaging to their reputation, particularly if they feel scrutinised as the subject of your investigation.
Of course, the more witness statements you have that corroborate one another (especially if these witnesses and interviewees are independent from each other), the closer you are to the truth. Filmed evidence from witnesses is usually considered stronger than audio evidence only. If you have neither video or sound, this would likely be considered weak evidence. Nevertheless, it is still worth taking notes on interviews, even immediately afterwards, if that is the only option.
You may sometimes receive or come across important documents during your field research. Be careful how you handle them. You can use copies of documents received from libraries and archives and documents released by authorities through Freedom of Information (FOI) requests in any way you want. But removing documents from buildings or other public or private locations could have significant legal ramifications depending on the jurisdiction you are in.
Sometimes it matters where exactly you found the documents. For instance, there are countries where material that has been put out as garbage is considered abandoned property, and can be taken. Photographing documents may be a good way forward but this is weaker evidence than having the originals. You should research these legal aspects as part of your planning before going into the field.
If your research includes taking environmental samples, your planning has to address relevant sampling protocols. Note that rules can be complicated and require a good deal of care and attention. If you do not follow protocol, your samples could be of poor quality, or, at worst, become contaminated and provide false results. Sample analysis should always be done in accredited laboratories to which you send or pass on your samples. Make sure you also check with these laboratories what best practices you should adopt while collecting samples in the field.
Safety in the field¶
As always, your safety and the safety of your team is paramount during field research. Invest time into understanding risks and researching your trip. A good rule of thumb is to dedicate at least an hour to safety research for each day of your trip into the field.
Ideally, the risk assessment you carry out before you departure will have provided you with some clarity about the risks involved in your research and the best ways to mitigate them. In addition to this preparation, we strongly recommend that you adopt a few good habits:
Collaboration – Avoid doing all but the most basic field research alone. Working in a team provides an additional level of safety.
Behaviour code – When working with locals or a team that is joining you in the field, work together to establish a common-sense code of behaviour for everyone to follow and some kind of mediation model for dealing with disagreements or difficult choices. Such situations can pose safety risks to everyone involved if they are not addressed and agreed upon.
Check-ins – Ensure you and your team have someone back home who knows where you are and what you are doing. It may be a good idea to check in with someone at home or from your team at least once a day. Depending on the situation, this may be at the start of the day, at the end of the day or both. If this becomes too difficult or time-consuming to maintain in the field, consider using software or apps that share your location. However, keep in mind that sharing your location may prove problematic if you suspect you are under surveillance.
Duress code* – When working in the field it is recommended to have a non obvious duress code. This is a word, phrase, or sentence intended to indicate that something is wrong or that someone is forcing you to act against your will. This should be more of a safe word than a code word. If overheard by outsiders, the duress code needs to sound benign and not alarming. It can even be a person’s name that, if slipped into communication, means something is wrong. If you’re working with a team, the duress code should be agreed upon ahead of time. The duress code can be shared with someone back home you are likely to communicate with during your check-ins.
Emergency reaction – Before you leave, agree with your check-in contact on steps they should take if you do not check in with them on time or if you have signalled that something is wrong.
Identification – When working in the field you are a stranger to others. This may make it difficult to prove who you are and what your motivations may be. Prepare some materials or samples from your past work and projects or have some online material ready to show, if you are not working undercover. If you are a journalist or a scientist working in the field it may be a good idea to bring a copy of an accreditation or a press pass. Present such materials in the local language and custom as far as possible. Bring copies of your citizenship documents and travel itinerary in a non-digital format in case your devices break or get lost. However, reveal identifying documents with discretion, since you might come across people who wouldn’t welcome an investigator. Only show your documents when proof of your identity is necessary to establish trust with a group of people you’d like to communicate with.
Information safety – If the footage you have taken is rare, controversial, or has been difficult to obtain, consider putting dummy memory cards into your equipment so that you can display ‘harmless’ material if asked. Keep your actual evidence hidden and stored on encrypted storage devices such as a USB, external hard drive or uploaded in an encrypted folder in your cloud service. It’s also a good idea to make multiple copies and back-ups of your evidence, to place them in various locations and with trusted contacts.
Health – If you have additional personal considerations, like health problems or allergies, plan for them. Provide such information to trusted people you are working with and make plans in case of emergency.
Travel Insurance – When working in the field try to buy insurance from providers that work with investigators, researchers, journalists, etc. They should offer coverage for lost items, travel complications, medical evacuation to a hospital that can treat you, non-medical evacuation to a secure location or embassy if you face safety risks and, in the event of death, repatriation back home.
Our example below can help illustrate how to come up with and apply safety measures.
Example 1: Testing water for herbicides and interviews
Since this project has to follow scientific guidelines for collecting samples, it requires you to keep the water samples cooled at specific temperatures and preserved in the correct sampling bottles. This is not easily done in a car, and the tests for this herbicide can only be carried out in accredited labs which you will somehow have to reach. Researchers will need to use a motorhome or caravan in order to ensure adequate fridge space and temperature control. In addition, the collection of every sample will be filmed and photographed, GPS coordinates of the water wells will be recorded, and each sample will be assigned a number. This number corresponds to a database with GPS coordinates, the time the sample was taken, the result of any tests done on site (such as pH, temperature, etc.) and any background information about the collection site. Interviews with the people who use the water for drinking will also be conducted and recorded, and linked to the samples.
When you get home¶
Once you’ve collected information in the field, it’s time to return home, analyse it and filter out what may constitute evidence for your project. For a refresher on how to advance from information or data to evidence, read our Kit section on “What Makes an Investigation.”
Keeping your raw information, evidence and results well organised is vital when it comes to analysing them. This means that when you get home you need to copy videos and photos, download any GPS coordinates you might have recorded, copy or scan any documents you have obtained, prepare environmental samples for shipping to labs, and so on. It’s best to do this right away, when your recollection of the research is still fresh.
During some investigations you may take hundreds of photos and hours of video footage. To keep them organised, create a database that lists the images, file names, locations where they were recorded, GPS coordinates, and a description of what they show. This process is called logging data. Similarly, for videos, you want a database that shows timestamps and related descriptions of key information that can be seen at crucial moments in the video. This is time-consuming initially but will save you a lot of time later on and ensure that you have all the evidence you think you have. If you don’t do this you will soon accumulate a chaotic archive of material and you’ll have to go through it many times over to find the information you are looking for.
Tip: You can import all your geolocated photos into Google Earth using software like Geosetter. Read more about working with maps in investigations in the Maps section of this Kit
Safety First! - Chain of custody and information safety
To avoid damaging or contaminating materials and data from the field, consider backing up everything you can in a format that saves both data and metadata, like EXIF (exchangeable image file format). It may be worth looking into how to set media or hardware partition on your computer or hard-drive to ‘read-only’ so its impossible to modify or delete backup information. This will keep it safe from intentional or mistaken deletion or editing. Having a methodical process and checklists for checking-in and out materials from and to your computer or external drive is recommended.
Never add to or manipulate any of the EXIF or other metadata and geodata of the original versions of images or documents you have taken. Altering this information can damage the accuracy and credibility of your data and, therefore, your entire investigation.
Notes from your data logging process, databases, and time logs often will contain sensitive information. Develop a good process for encryption, archiving, storage, and destruction (if necessary) of these materials, especially after you conclude the investigation, and if you fear that such data may end up being misused, or may pose safety risks to yourself, your collaborators, and/or your sources. Be equally careful about exposing sensitive image metadata from your investigation to others.
Our examples can illustrate how best to approach your material upon your return.
Example1: Testing water for herbicides
For this project, you took hundreds of photos. You linked each of them to a location and the specific water sample you obtained. In addition, you conducted many interviews resulting in many hours of footage. After completing the field research you watched all the video footage and transcribed key passages you might use later into a database.
Due to the requirement of cooling the water samples, and the substantial chance of them degrading, you had to organise several shipments of samples to the labs during field research. This means significant additional travel.
Example 2: Interviewing a confidential source
If you have been able to get information from your confidential source, you might need to protect their identity. What you will have to do depends on your source’s wishes and the type of information you received from them. In this case, the source wants to remain anonymous, but provided you with some paperwork from the tender committee that was printed at the local council. In this case, it is important to find out whether printed documents can be traced back to your source (for instance through printer logs at the council), and to be aware of Machine Identification Codes that are printed on documents. See this BBC article about how printers can add identifiers to documents and how this can affect whistleblowers.
It is time to review your research goal, to consider whether your objective has been achieved, and to determine whether you can draw conclusions from your work. Alternatively, you may need to repeat your research (if possible), adjust your research strategies and adopt a more realistic goal, or look for different kinds of evidence.
Don’t expect your field research to be successful on the first try. Even if you have trained, practiced, and simulated beforehand, being in the field when it matters is a very different situation. There is always an element of luck or chance.
If you have not met your goal, take the time to understand why. There may be obvious reasons that are out of your control. A source might not have shown up, or the weather might have prevented you from carrying out your plans. In most cases however, you will be able to learn from your mistakes and gain experience for the next time. Even when you are successful, it’s worth reflecting on lessons learned and ways to improve.
You might realise that you have to improve your cover story, or that you need to work on your confidence. You may also realise that your equipment has not performed the way you wanted it to, either due to technical limitations or due to your lack of knowledge and skill.
While it’s frustrating to come home and find you did not get everything you wanted, you should know that this is pretty much the norm. If you work in a team you should be confident to criticise one another. Many good researchers are never satisfied with their research results and strategies, and are always thinking of ways to improve.
Example1: Testing water for herbicides
In this project, all samples that you tested showed no residue of the herbicide you tested for. This was somewhat unexpected, and not in line with other scientific literature. Though there could be a variety of reasons for this, such as the degradation of samples, the impact of the weather or the lack of recent herbicide spraying events, it remains unclear why this happened, despite detailed reviews. However, the interviews you carried out with local communities and experts show significant concerns and consistent observations around large-scale spraying of the herbicide. A few years later, the herbicide is declared illegal in many countries and in many communities, including some where your research took place, due to the likelihood of it causing cancer.
Example 2: Interviewing a confidential source
In this situation, you were able to meet the potential source but the evidence obtained was not strong enough to prove an act of corruption. Considering the limited number of people who had access to the information, you decided that the risk for the whistle-blower was too great, and the evidence too weak, for this research strategy to continue. You now need to identify alternative ways to obtain evidence if you decide to pursue the investigation.
Published October 2019
Articles and Guides¶
- AP Investigation: Fish billed as local isn’t always local (archived copy from Wayback Machine available here). From Associated Press (AP). A field investigation that tracked fish to carry out DNA testing and reveal how it has been mislabeled.
- Conducting Field Research (archived copy from Wayback Machine available here). From Colorado State University. A useful simple guide to get you started with the basics.
- De-escalate Anyone, Anywhere, Anytime - direct Pdf download (archived copy from Wayback Machine available here). From RightResponse.org. This is a general introduction and was not written for investigators specifically but can be used as a starting point.
- DSD Working Papers on Research Security series (archived copy from Wayback Machine available here). From the Social Science and Research Council (SSRC). Advanced guides about safety while on field research in dangerous areas.
- Environmental Investigation Agency(EIA) news and investigations (archived copy from Wayback Machine available here). These can serve as inspiration, background resources for your research, tips and methods for field investigations on environmental issues.
- Pre-assignment Preparation: emergency response (archived copy from Wayback Machine available here). From Committee to Project Journalists (CPJ) - a list of available resources that can help you learn and prepare the safety elements of your field investigations. *Relevant for any researcher, not only journalists.
- Risk management for NGOs (archived copy from Wayback Machine available here). From United Nations Somalia. *Note that the guide is generally applicable, not only for Somalia.
- Video as Evidence: Guides (archived copy from Wayback Machine available here). From Witness.org. A series of guides on how to use video to expose human rights violations and to document evidence from the field.
- Which Mic Should I Use? (archived copy from Wayback Machine available here). From National Public Radio (NPR) Training.
Tools and Databases¶
- Best apps and tools for recording phone or Skype interviews (archived copy from Wayback Machine available here). From International Journalists’ Network (IJnet). A review of methods and tools for recording conversations while conducting research nd investigations.
- Easy Voice Recorder. A voice recording app for Android.
- Geosetter. A tool to embed geolocated photos into maps, available only for Windows.
- Locus Maps. An offline mapping and navigation app for Android.
- Public Lab do-it-yourself aerial photography(archived copy from Wayback Machine available here)
- Umbrella Security from Secfirst.org. A security handbook running as an open source app on your phone, available in AppStore, Google Play, Amazon appstore and Fdroid.
- Voice Recorder. A voice recording app for Android.
Backstory – The explanation for what you are doing and why. It can be truthful or somewhat made up. It provides a plausible background for your cover story including evidence that supports it.
Chain of custody – The documented history of the treatment - including who is in possession - of a piece of evidence. A chronological record of how material (documents, samples, other evidence) is handled and by whom. It documents every step of transfer of control and analysis of the evidence. It is important that there are no gaps in the chain of custody for evidence to be trustworthy. The term is often used in legal cases when managing evidence but also applies to any other investigations, including in environmental sampling.
Cover story – Similar to a backstory, but generally made up or heavily distorted. It can consist of a made up persona or story that helps researchers to obtain information. Good cover stories have plausible backstories.
Corroborate – Confirm and verify the same piece information or data from multiple sources.
Corroborating evidence – Additional evidence that supports other evidence already obtained. Anything that supports a witness’s story or your understanding of information.
Data logging – A process of keeping various kinds of information organised in a database that lists details such as file names, their contents, source, time when they were obtained, image titles and a description of what they show, metadata like locations where they were recorded, GPS coordinates, timestamps, etc.
De-escalation – A method of using behaviours and language (including body language) to diffuse the aggressive behaviour of others.
Duress code – A word, phrase, or sentence intended to indicate that something is wrong. It can be used when contacting a friend/ colleague/ relative while you are away and should be more of a safeword than a code word.
Environmental sample – A sample of any material that is collected from an environmental source such as water, air or soil.
Freedom of Information (FOI) legislation – Laws and regulations that govern citizens’ access to information in a country or region, and that specify what exactly is considered information of public interest and what is not (e.g. what is considered a state secret, a commercial secret, etc.).
Freedom of Information request – The process of requesting access to information from public institutions or companies based on established procedures and forms. This process and access is governed by Freedom of Information (FOI) legislation. Not all countries have or apply FOI legislation. See AccessInfo’s Right To Information (RTI) ratings for details.
Field research / field investigation – Any kind of research that needs to happen in a specific location or in a more hands-on way.
GPS – A US system of navigational satellites that allow users to determine their position on earth.
Handheld GPS device – A single-purpose device, which provides precise information on one’s location, and can sometimes map a physical area.
Jurisdiction – A geographical area governed by a specific legal authority (i.e. local, regional, national government).
Machine Identification Codes – Watermarks in the form of yellow (or other type of) spots left by printers or copy machines on papers they process. These are not visible to the naked eye but can be discovered upon closer scrutiny and allow the identification of devices used to print/scan/copy documents. See research on the topic
Metadata – Information that describes the properties of a file, be it an image, a document, a sound recording, a map, etc. For example the contents of an image are the visible elements in it, while the date when the image was taken, the location and device information constitute its metadata.
Release/consent form – Forms that grant permission for the use of information or media from interviews, or which show that you have done your due diligence in explaining to your subjects the details and possible risks associated with participating in your research.
Topographical map – A map showing the altitude of the landscape, and providing additional helpful information for navigation, especially in the wilderness or in non-urban areas.