Archive for INSEE

democracy suffers when government statistics fail [review of a book review]

Posted in Statistics, Books, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , on October 13, 2020 by xi'an

This week, rather extraordinarily!, Nature book review was about official statistics, with a review of Julia Lane’s Democratizing our Data. (The democratizing in the title is painful to watch, though!) The reviewer is Beth Simone Noveck, who was deputy chief technology officer under Barack Obama and a major researcher in digital democracy, excusez du peu! (By comparison, Trump’s deputy chief technology officer had a B.A. in politics and no other qualification for the job, but got nonetheless promoted to chief…)

“Lane asserts that the United States is failing to adequately track its population, economy and society. Agencies are stagnating. The census dramatically undercounts people from minority racial groups. There is no complete national list of households. The data are made available two years after the count, making them out of date as the basis for effective policy making.” B.S. Noveck

The debate raised by the book on the ability of official statistics to keep track of people in a timely manner is most interesting. And not limited to the USA, even though it seems to fit in a Hell of its own:

“In the United States, there is no single national statistical agency. The process of gathering and publishing public data is fragmented across multiple departments and agencies, making it difficult to introduce new ideas across the whole enterprise. Each agency is funded by, and accountable to, a different congressional committee. Congress once sued the commerce department for attempting to introduce modern techniques of statistical sampling to shore up a flawed census process that involves counting every person by hand.” B.S. Noveck

This remark brings back to (my) mind the titanesque debates of the 1990s when Republicans attacked sampling techniques and statisticians like Steve Fienberg rose to their defence. (Although others like David Freedman opposed the move, paradoxically mistrusting statistics!) The French official statistic institute, INSEE, has been running sampled census(es) for decades now, without the national representation going up in arms. I am certainly being partial, having been associated with INSEE, its statistics school ENSAE and its research branch CREST since 1982, but it seems to me that the hiring of highly skilled and thoroughly trained civil servants by this institute helps in making the statistics it produces more trustworthy and efficient, including measuring the impact of public policies. (Even though accusations of delay and bias show up regularly.) And in making the institute more prone to adopt new methods, thanks to the rotation of its agents. (B.S. Noveck notices and deplores the absence of reference to foreign agencies in the book.)

“By contrast, the best private-sector companies produce data that are in real time, comprehensive, relevant, accessible and meaningful.”  B.S. Noveck

However, the notion in the review (and the book?) that private companies are necessarily doing better is harder to buy, if an easy jab at a public institution. Indeed, public official statistic institutes are the only one to have access to data covering the entire population, either directly or through other public institutes, like the IRS or social security claims. And trusting the few companies with a similar reach is beyond naïve (even though a company like Amazon has almost an instantaneous and highly local sensor of economic and social conditions!). And at odds for the call of democratizing, as shown by the impact of some of these companies on the US elections.

homeless hosted in my former office

Posted in pictures, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , , on September 24, 2020 by xi'an

updated (over)mortality curves

Posted in Statistics with tags , , , , , , , on May 26, 2020 by xi'an

another surmortality graph

Posted in Books, R, Statistics with tags , , , , , , , , on April 27, 2020 by xi'an

Another graph showing the recent peak in daily deaths throughout France as recorded by INSEE and plotted by Baptiste Coulmont from Paris 8 Sociology Department. And further discussed by Arthur Charpentier on Freakonometrics. With a few days off due to reporting, this brings an objective perspective on the impact of the epidemics (and of the quarantine) compared with the other years since 2001, without requiring tests or even surveys. (The huge peak in August 2003 was an heat wave that decimated elderly citizens throughout France.)

coronavirus counts do not count

Posted in Books, pictures, Statistics with tags , , , , , , , , on April 8, 2020 by xi'an

Somewhat by chance I came across Nate Silver‘s tribune on FiveThirtyEight about the meaninglessness of COVID-19 case counts. As it reflects on sampling efforts and available resources rather than actual cases, furthermore sampling efforts from at least a fortnight.

“The data, at best, is highly incomplete, and often the tip of the iceberg for much larger problems. And data on tests and the number of reported cases is highly nonrandom. In many parts of the world today, health authorities are still trying to triage the situation with a limited number of tests available. Their goal in testing is often to allocate scarce medical care to the patients who most need it — rather than to create a comprehensive dataset for epidemiologists and statisticians to study.”

This article runs four different scenarios, with the same actual parameters for the epidemics, and highly different and mostly misleading perceptions based on the testing strategies. This is a highly relevant warning but I am surprised Nate Silver does not move to the rather obvious conclusion that some form of official survey or another, for instance based on capture-recapture and representative samples, testing for present and past infections, should be implemented on a very regular basis, even with a limited number of tested persons to get a much more reliable vision of the status of the epidemics. Here, the French official institute of statistics, INSEE, would be most suited to implement such a scheme.