Eran Segal, Feng Zhang, Xihong Lin, Gary King, Ophir Shalem, Smadar Shilo, William E. Allen, Yonatan H. Grad, Casey S. Greene, Faisal Alquaddoomi, Simon Anders, Ran Balicer, Tal Bauman, Ximena Bonilla, Gisel Booman, Andrew T. Chan, Ori Cohen, Silvano Coletti, Natalie Davidson, Yuval Dor, David A. Drew, Olivier Elemento, Georgina Evans, Phil Ewels, Joshua Gale, Amir Gavrieli, Benjamin Geiger, Iman Hajirasouliha, Roman Jerala, Andre Kahles, Olli Kallioniemi, Ayya Keshet, Gregory Landua, Tomer Meir, Aline Muller, Long H. Nguyen, Matej Oresic, Svetlana Ovchinnikova, Hedi Peterson, Jay Rajagopal, Gunnar Rätsch, Hagai Rossman, Johan Rung, Andrea Sboner, Alexandros Sigaras, Tim Spector, Ron Steinherz, Irene Stevens, Jaak Vilo, Paul Wilmes, and CCC (Coronavirus Census Collective). Working Paper. “Building an International Consortium for Tracking Coronavirus Health Status”. Publisher's VersionAbstract
Information is the most potent protective weapon we have to combat a pandemic, at both the individual and global level. For individuals, information can help us make personal decisions and provide a sense of security. For the global community, information can inform policy decisions and offer critical insights into the epidemic of COVID-19 disease. Fully leveraging the power of information, however, requires large amounts of data and access to it. To achieve this, we are making steps to form an international consortium, Coronavirus Census Collective (CCC, coronaviruscensuscollective.org), that will serve as a hub for integrating information from multiple data sources that can be utilized to understand, monitor, predict, and combat global pandemics. These sources may include self-reported health status through surveys (including mobile apps), results of diagnostic laboratory tests, and other static and real-time geospatial data. This collective effort to track and share information will be invaluable in predicting hotspots of disease outbreak, identifying which factors control the rate of spreading, informing immediate policy decisions, evaluating the effectiveness of measures taken by health organizations on pandemic control, and providing critical insight on the etiology of COVID-19. It will also help individuals stay informed on this rapidly evolving situation and contribute to other global efforts to slow the spread of disease. In the past few weeks, several initiatives across the globe have surfaced to use daily self-reported symptoms as a means to track disease spread, predict outbreak locations, guide population measures and help in the allocation of healthcare resources. The aim of this paper is to put out a call to standardize these efforts and spark a collaborative effort to maximize the global gain while protecting participant privacy.
Survey researchers have long sought to protect the privacy of their respondents via de-identification (removing names, addresses, and other directly identifying information) before analyzing or sharing data. Although these procedures obviously help in important circumstances, recent research demonstrates that they fail to protect survey respondents from intentional attempts at re-identification, a problem that threatens to undermine vast survey enterprises in academia, government, and industry. This is especially a problem for political science because political beliefs are not only the subject of our survey questions and scholarship; they are key information respondents seek to keep private and elected representatives use to write privacy legislation. In this paper, we build on the concept of "differential privacy" to offer new survey research data sharing procedures with mathematical guarantees for protecting respondent privacy and statistical validity guarantees for social scientists analyzing differentially private data. The cost of these new procedures is larger standard errors or confidence intervals, which can be overcome with somewhat larger sample sizes.
Purpose: The COVID-19 death-rate in Italy continues to climb, surpassing that in every other country. We implement one of the first nationally representative surveys about this unprecedented public health crisis and use it to evaluate the Italian government’ public health efforts and citizen responses. Findings: (1) Public health messaging is being heard. Except for slightly lower compliance among young adults, all subgroups we studied understand how to keep themselves and others safe from the SARS-Cov-2 virus. Remarkably, even those who do not trust the government, or think the government has been untruthful about the crisis believe the messaging and claim to be acting in accordance. (2) The quarantine is beginning to have serious negative effects on the population’s mental health. Policy Recommendations: Communications focus should move from explaining to citizens that they should stay at home to what they can do there. We need interventions that make staying at home and following public health protocols more desirable. These interventions could include virtual social interactions, such as online social reading activities, classes, exercise routines, etc. — all designed to reduce the boredom of long term social isolation and to increase the attractiveness of following public health recommendations. Interventions like these will grow in importance as the crisis wears on around the world, and staying inside wears on people.
Universities require faculty and students planning research involving human subjects to pass formal certification tests and then submit research plans for prior approval. Those who diligently take the tests may better understand certain important legal requirements but, at the same time, are often misled into thinking they can apply these rules to their own work which, in fact, they are not permitted to do. They will also be missing many other legal requirements not mentioned in their training but which govern their behaviors. Finally, the training leaves them likely to completely misunderstand the essentially political situation they find themselves in. The resulting risks to their universities, collaborators, and careers may be catastrophic, in addition to contributing to the more common ordinary frustrations of researchers with the system. To avoid these problems, faculty and students conducting research about and for the public need to understand that they are public figures, to whom different rules apply, ones that political scientists have long studied. University administrators (and faculty in their part-time roles as administrators) need to reorient their perspectives as well. University research compliance bureaucracies have grown, in well-meaning but sometimes unproductive ways that are not required by federal laws or guidelines. We offer advice to faculty and students for how to deal with the system as it exists now, and suggestions for changes in university research compliance bureaucracies, that should benefit faculty, students, staff, university budgets, and our research subjects.
We provide an overview of PSI ("a Private data Sharing Interface"), a system we are developing to enable researchers in the social sciences and other fields to share and explore privacy-sensitive datasets with the strong privacy protections of differential privacy.
We offer methods to analyze the "differentially private" Facebook URLs Dataset which, at over 10 trillion cell values, is one of the largest social science research datasets ever constructed. The version of differential privacy used in the URLs dataset has specially calibrated random noise added, which provides mathematical guarantees for the privacy of individual research subjects while still making it possible to learn about aggregate patterns of interest to social scientists. Unfortunately, random noise creates measurement error which induces statistical bias -- including attenuation, exaggeration, switched signs, or incorrect uncertainty estimates. We adapt methods developed to correct for naturally occurring measurement error, with special attention to computational efficiency for large datasets. The result is statistically consistent and approximately unbiased linear regression estimates and descriptive statistics that can be interpreted as ordinary analyses of non-confidential data but with appropriately larger standard errors.
We have implemented these methods in open source software for R called PrivacyUnbiased. Facebook has ported PrivacyUnbiased to open source Python code called svinfer.
Unprecedented quantities of data that could help social scientists understand and ameliorate the challenges of human society are presently locked away inside companies, governments, and other organizations, in part because of worries about privacy violations. We address this problem with a general-purpose data access and analysis system with mathematical guarantees of privacy for individuals who may be represented in the data and statistical validity guarantees for researchers seeking population-level insights from it. We build on the standard of "differential privacy" but, unlike most such approaches, we also correct for the serious statistical biases induced by privacy-preserving procedures, provide a proper accounting for statistical uncertainty, and impose minimal constraints on the choice of data analytic methods and types of quantities estimated. Our algorithm is easy to implement, simple to use, and computationally efficient; we also offer open source software to illustrate all our methods.
While digital trace data from sources like search engines hold enormous potential for tracking and understanding human behavior, these streams of data lack information about the actual experiences of those individuals generating the data. Moreover, most current methods ignore or under-utilize human processing capabilities that allow humans to solve problems not yet solvable by computers (human computation). We demonstrate how behavioral research, linking digital and real-world behavior, along with human computation, can be utilized to improve the performance of studies using digital data streams. This study looks at the use of search data to track prevalence of Influenza-Like Illness (ILI). We build a behavioral model of flu search based on survey data linked to users’ online browsing data. We then utilize human computation for classifying search strings. Leveraging these resources, we construct a tracking model of ILI prevalence that outperforms strong historical benchmarks using only a limited stream of search data and lends itself to tracking ILI in smaller geographic units. While this paper only addresses searches related to ILI, the method we describe has potential for tracking a broad set of phenomena in near real-time.
Last year was difficult for Google Flu Trends (GFT). In early 2013, Nature reported that GFT was estimating more than double the percentage of doctor visits for influenza like illness than the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention s (CDC) sentinel reports during the 2012 2013 flu season (1). Given that GFT was designed to forecast upcoming CDC reports, this was a problematic finding. In March 2014, our report in Science found that the overestimation problem in GFT was also present in the 2011 2012 flu season (2). The report also found strong evidence of autocorrelation and seasonality in the GFT errors, and presented evidence that the issues were likely, at least in part, due to modifications made by Google s search algorithm and the decision by GFT engineers not to use previous CDC reports or seasonality estimates in their models what the article labeled algorithm dynamics and big data hubris respectively. Moreover, the report and the supporting online materials detailed how difficult/impossible it is to replicate the GFT results, undermining independent efforts to explore the source of GFT errors and formulate improvements.
Matching is an increasingly popular method of causal inference in observational data, but following methodological best practices has proven difficult for applied researchers. We address this problem by providing a simple graphical approach for choosing among the numerous possible matching solutions generated by three methods: the venerable ``Mahalanobis Distance Matching'' (MDM), the commonly used ``Propensity Score Matching'' (PSM), and a newer approach called ``Coarsened Exact Matching'' (CEM). In the process of using our approach, we also discover that PSM often approximates random matching, both in many real applications and in data simulated by the processes that fit PSM theory. Moreover, contrary to conventional wisdom, random matching is not benign: it (and thus PSM) can often degrade inferences relative to not matching at all. We find that MDM and CEM do not have this problem, and in practice CEM usually outperforms the other two approaches. However, with our comparative graphical approach and easy-to-follow procedures, focus can be on choosing a matching solution for a particular application, which is what may improve inferences, rather than the particular method used to generate it.
We highlight, and suggest ways to avoid, a large number of common misunderstandings in the literature about best practices in qualitative research. We discuss these issues in four areas: theory and data, qualitative and quantitative strategies, causation and explanation, and selection bias. Some of the misunderstandings involve incendiary debates within our discipline that are readily resolved either directly or with results known in research areas that happen to be unknown to political scientists. Many of these misunderstandings can also be found in quantitative research, often with different names, and some of which can be fixed with reference to ideas better understood in the qualitative methods literature. Our goal is to improve the ability of quantitatively and qualitatively oriented scholars to enjoy the advantages of insights from both areas. Thus, throughout, we attempt to construct specific practical guidelines that can be used to improve actual qualitative research designs, not only the qualitative methods literatures that talk about them.