This article argues that it is not always necessary to undertake costly surveys. A rapid reconnaissance 'sounding' of the local situation should generate sufficient information to enable a project to be started which will generate more information as it proceeds. The reasons for a cultural preference among planning officials for surveys - which often generate more information than is needed - are discussed, as are the dangers of using a limited set of conventional information gathering methods - which can miss key facets of rural lives. Ways of gaining a better understanding through 'soundings' are discussed, including officials chatting in a more informal style, using the sondeo method, involving local people as researchers and group discussions. The validity of soundings data is explored. The data requirements for practical action differ from the requirements of routine reporting systems. Attitudes and behaviour must also change to enable officials to use imagination and lateral thinking about information requirements and collection methods. Examples are drawn from health and hygiene.
This article may interest those involved in research and information systems in public health services.