Since the COVID-19 crisis altered the way Americans live and work, the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) Gas Price Survey team at RTI International has faced a significant new challenge. To conduct its weekly survey, the team had to contact more than 1,400 filling stations across the country (including a combination of retail gas stations and on-highway diesel vendors) and obtain a snapshot of gas and diesel prices across five U.S. regions, while navigating remote working, as an entire team, for the first time.
The survey sample includes more than 1,400 gas stations. Each Monday morning, the EIA Gas Survey team—which comprises RTI staff from multiple programs, along with colleagues at IMG-Crown and EIA—begins contacting the attendants, managers, and owners of gas stations that are selected to report price information. Data collection is multimodal, which means that the team collects raw data from seven modes: inbound computer-assisted telephone interviewing (CATI), outbound CATI, fax, web submissions, SMS texts, web retrievals, and email.
At the conclusion of the data-collection process (at 12:45 p.m. EST for diesel and 1:30 p.m. EST for motor gasoline), the prices obtained are sorted across more than 20 data sets and subjected to multiple levels of computerized analysis and quality control.
At the end of this process, EIA validates and posts the results on its website, broken out by region and selected states/cities. With the assistance of our tightly coordinated data-collection efforts, EIA performs a valuable service for motorists—helping them to determine how much it will cost to drive from Chicago to Miami, or to commute to and from work over the course of a given week.
We thought it would be interesting to learn how this complex team reacted when many of them suddenly transitioned to remote working due to the need for social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Q. How was the team able to adapt to working remotely as a result of COVID-19?
A. “Our team was successful in becoming all-virtual for two primary reasons,” said Project Director Jessica Williams. “First, from the beginning, we have had unwavering support from RTI’s leadership at all levels across multiple divisions. Knowing that we can go to our division VPs and our project review leaders with full transparency to seek guidance was and continues to be invaluable. To my knowledge, this project is still the only federal survey that has to go through collection, analysis, and public release in less than a day every week of the year. Our leaders set the tone and joined us in problem-solving from the beginning to create a mind-set that we will be successful each and every Monday.
“Second, we have succeeded in becoming all-virtual because our project team continues to collaborate to support a common mission: we may have different roles but we are all on the same team reaching a common goal! Our team has worked together on redundancy planning to get us through hurricanes, snow storms, internal IT issues, staff schedules, and now a pandemic. Every single week our dedicated team is united to troubleshoot, communicate, support each other, and complete any level of task needed to ensure we provide our client with top quality data within an aggressive timeline.”
Q. Did you have any mechanisms already in place for this type of situation?
“Our team was prepared for a full-remote scenario because of past contingency planning related to hurricanes and network outages,” said Megan Waggy, Data Collection Manager for the EIA Gas Price Survey. “Though we had not conducted a full-remote test since 2018, that earlier planning allowed us to rapidly shift gears in the few business days we had before our next Monday collection. Each team member was on call to address potential issues, though that behavior is already standard for our staff every Monday. Troubleshooting is simply key to our success. Pandemic will be added to the contingency plan moving forward.”
Q. The surveys are among the most referenced information produced by the Department of Energy and the EIA. Has the team been able to maintain the high completion rate standards required for this project?
“We were concerned about how it would go the first week,” said Senior Technical Advisor Brian Burke. “Complicating matters, due to falling gas and diesel prices, we had many more quality-control (QC) checks than normal, since any change exceeding a certain percent drop (or increase) compared to the prior week triggers a QC check. Completion rates came at the approximate usual rate despite closed stations that counted against the completion rate. Additionally, EIA published the gas prices at 5:48 p.m. on March 16 and 5:55 p.m. on March 23 and the diesel prices at 4:40 p.m. on March 16 and 4:08 p.m. on March 23, which satisfied the client given the COVID-19 concerns and the large price fluctuations.”
Q. What has been the key to delivering the project as expected, despite the challenging circumstances?
"This project is unique and has challenged us to find creative ways to ensure we can run a full data collection cycle in a single day every week, plan for ways to work through (almost) everything from weather emergencies to technical issues, and develop processes that allow our team to quickly and effectively work together,” said Meagan Brackin, Project Supervisor. “This planning has served us well in quickly transitioning to a full remote model, but it’s the individuals that make us successful. At the Research Operation Center, we have seen tremendous flexibility and dedication from our interviewers and supervisors—especially during this pandemic. Everyone on the team is equally committed to seeing this project to the finish line every week.”
“One of the most time-critical projects we have is the requirement to collect fuel price data every week and deliver results on a very stringent schedule,” said Executive Vice President of Social, Statistical and Environmental Sciences Tim Gabel. “This project team has previously persevered through hurricane-related challenges, needing to get people back into the Research Operation Center in a hurry. However, that this data collection could be pulled off successfully via a teleworking staff is quite remarkable and provides an example of RTI’s Lead Forward behaviors in action that all of us can follow to meet our clients’ needs during a time of extreme uncertainty.”