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 regression estimates and descriptive statistics that can be interpreted as ordinary analyses of non-confidential data but with appropriately larger standard errors.
These methods are implemented in open source software called PrivacyUnbiased.
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, statistical guarantees for researchers seeking population-level insights from it, and protection for society from some fallacious scientific conclusions. 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.
Inference is the process of using facts we know to learn about facts we do not know. A theory of inference gives assumptions necessary to get from the former to the latter, along with a definition for and summary of the resulting uncertainty. Any one theory of inference is neither right nor wrong, but merely an axiom that may or may not be useful. Each of the many diverse theories of inference can be valuable for certain applications. However, no existing theory of inference addresses the tendency to choose, from the range of plausible data analysis specifications consistent with prior evidence, those that inadvertently favor one's own hypotheses. Since the biases from these choices are a growing concern across scientific fields, and in a sense the reason the scientific community was invented in the first place, we introduce a new theory of inference designed to address this critical problem. We derive "hacking intervals," which are the range of a summary statistic one may obtain given a class of possible endogenous manipulations of the data. Hacking intervals require no appeal to hypothetical data sets drawn from imaginary superpopulations. A scientific result with a small hacking interval is more robust to researcher manipulation than one with a larger interval, and is often easier to interpret than a classical confidence interval. Some versions of hacking intervals turn out to be equivalent to classical confidence intervals, which means they may also provide a more intuitive and potentially more useful interpretation of classical confidence intervals.