Friday, September 28, 2012

Weekend Beer Graphic


That's the graphic illustrating this entertaining post from the National Journal. (Via James Fallows - his post about the graphic is here.) As always, think critically about the data - how representative of the electorate were those 200,000 survey responders? And after you've wondered about the reliability of the data (it is mostly self-reported), well, enjoy the chart. Just drink responsibly.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Student Internship Infographic

Here's an interesting infographic about student internships.

Internships Infographic
It comes from OnlineCollegeCourses.com, a website devoted to finding online college courses.Internships Infographic

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Big data and the Olympics

NBC has unleashed a huge amount of data about how Americans watched the London Olympics: we watched on TV, yes, but we also watched on NBC's web sites, on our computers, tablets, and phones. We tweeted and posted comments on Facebook. And, the New York Times reports, a bunch of us participated in studies about what we did. The data don't seem to be available publicly yet, but NBC Universal (the research lab) shared some of its conclusions with the Times. Here are some of the findings:
[E]ight million people downloaded NBC’s mobile apps for streaming video, and there were two billion page views across all of NBC’s Web sites and apps. Forty-six percent of 18- to 54-year-olds surveyed said they “followed the Olympics during my breaks at work,” and 73 percent said they “stayed up later than normal” to watch, according to a survey of about 800 viewers by the market research firm uSamp . . . .
The results signaled vast changes from just two years ago in Vancouver, when tablets and mobile video streaming were still in their infancy. The two most streamed events on any device during the London Olympics, the women’s soccer final and women’s gymnastics, surpassed all the videos streamed during the Vancouver Olympics combined. 
Fascinating. That's all I have time for today, but I will keep an eye on the story.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The Trust for America's Health has published a new report called "F as in Fat: How Obesity Threatens America's Future 2012." Brian Fung of the Atlantic writes that according to the report, at present rates, at least half of Americans in 39 states will be obese. The map above? That's a projection, based on present rates, showing which states will have an obese population of 50% or morein 2030. Because trends might change, here's a somewhat less depressing map showing 2011 obesity rates (from the Trust for America's Health):



The Trust for America's Health has an interactive map that allows you to compare obesity rates in 2030 if BMI is reduced 5%, and obesity rates in 2030 if there's no change. And you can get the full report here.

What's the consequence? The Trust for America's Health states that if we can succeed in reducing adult obesity, we will lower disease rates and health care costs:
If BMIs were lowered, the number of Americans who could be spared from developing major obesity-related diseases could range from:
  • Type 2 diabetes: 14,389 in Alaska to 796,430 in California;
  • Coronary heart disease and stroke: 11,889 in Alaska to 656,970 in California;
  • Hypertension: 10,826 in Alaska to 698,431 in California;
  • Arthritis: 6,858 in Wyoming to 387,850 in California; and
  • Obesity-related cancer: 809 in Alaska to 52,769 in California.
And nearly every state could save between 6.5 percent and 7.9 percent in health care costs. This could equate to savings ranging from $81.7 billion in California to $1.1 billion in Wyoming. Florida, the only state that would save less than 6.5 percent in health care costs, could save 2.1 percent or $34 billion.
It's, well, food for thought.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Health Impact Bonds

About a month ago I wrote a post about social impact bonds. That post provided a primer; briefly, social impact bonds allow non-profits to obtain funding from private sector markets for new programs. If they are successful in reducing expenses, the bonds will provide for a return to investors. (NB - I know this is a simple description of a complex process. I listed some of the many conditions that must be in place for social impact bonds to work in the previous post. And I include them again at the bottom of this post.)

I received some email about the post, and have done a little more research, and have found several groups that are making efforts to use the same kind of financing arrangement for health care, in this country and in the UK. One approach, that taken by the Young Foundation in the UK, is to develop Health Impact Bonds to support particular health care interventions.

Collective Health, an effort to improve community conditions by using health impact bonds and other innovative financing methods, takes another approach. It focuses on prevention:

To reduce the growth rate of chronic health conditions we must look at the context and quality of life that individuals experience: availability and choices of food; social networks and support systems; cultural influences and physical environments of our homes, workplaces, schools and neighborhoods. Growing evidence suggests that we must invest in these and other “upstream” sources of health—often referred to as the social determinants of health—to improve outcomes and reduce costs in a sustainable way.
This is a different way of thinking about preventive care. As the Collective Health white paper points out, health care is large sector of US economy, employing some 12% of American workers. The number of workers and the large budget for health care - $2.6 trillion - makes it hard to think outside of medical model.

Collective Health would like to see development of Health Capital Markets, alternative investments that will allow capital to flow from impact investors and other sources into new markets, such as Health Impact Bonds as well as alternative financing mechanisms. You can read more about the approach on Collective Health's website, particularly its example of using Health Impact Bonds to reduce asthma hospitalizations in Fresno, California, available here.

As promised, here is a list of features that must all be in place for an impact investment to succeed. (this time I quote Collective Health):

  • Target outcomes must be clearly defined and achievable;
  • The proposed intervention should reflect best practices;
  • Measuring outcomes must be independently validated;
  • A clearly defined “savings” or return value should be established; and
  • Public agencies, nonprofits, investors and community stakeholders must all be willing to work together. 




      

Friday, September 21, 2012

Summer Arctic ice melt, and winter weather


This year's record Arctic sea ice melt, nicely illustrated in the video, is providing the starting point for a series of studies on the possible impact on the jet stream - and with the jet stream, on global weather.

As Andrew Freedman of Climate Central puts it, one study suggests that because of the extent of the ice melt:
the jet stream, which has always been rather capricious, is behaving differently now. It has become slightly more elongated during fall and winter, with bigger troughs and ridges. A more wavy jet stream may have contributed to recent extreme winters that have featured historic blizzards along the East Coast of the U.S. as well as in Europe . . .
Another study has found that the colder winters and large snowstorms of the northern hemisphere are at least in part the result of the arctic ice melt. I'll be keeping an eye out for updates.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Managing your day

From the Harvard Business Review blog, here are a couple of useful columns. The first, by Peter Bregman, is called "Two Lists You Should Look at Every Morning." Bregman argues that you need to know what you need to work on - he calls it The Focus List. And that you need to know what distracts you - The Ignore List. Or, if you will, the what you can let slide list. There's more, so click through to the full article.

The second, "Your Body Language Speaks for You in Meetings," by Charalambos Vlachoutsicos, is more about governing ourselves. Boss, underlings, students, teacher - we all have body language, and we all respond to that of others. Vlachoutsicos offers a check list for before meeting preparation - make sure you're not hungry or thirsty, go to the bathroom, and figure out your emotional temperature. He offers additional suggestions for during the meeting. Again, you'll have to click through to see what they are - it's worth it.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Two (small) points I haven't seen elsewhere about the 47% comment

Update, September 19: This Harvard Business Review Blog post has an interesting take on the context of Romney's 47% comment.

There's been a lot of discussion today about Mitt Romney's comment, reported yesterday, that the 47% of Americans pay no income tax. You can watch the video here.

This sounded as if something ghad been distorted, and I took a look at the original report from the Tax Policy Center, available here. And Roberton Williams, the person who wrote the report, has this to say today:
In 2011, 46 percent of tax units paid no federal income tax. Half of them had no taxable income—the standard deduction and personal exemptions exceed their income.  The other half get enough tax breaks to wipe out their basic tax liability.
One of the points various commentators are making is that many of those non-payers? They live in the South, in states that generally vote Republican. That's the map you can see above. A second point is that even though these households pay no income tax, many of them pay other taxes, including Social Security, Medicare, and state and local taxes. (And sales tax.)

I have two admittedly wonky points I want to add. First, the Tax Policy Center analyzed returns. That means returns of people who worked, earned money, had it withheld from their checks, and filed tax returns. That means that at least some of the people Romney is referring to are working. (Some are elderly.) Second, returns reflect households (the Tax Policy Center calls them "tax units"), not voters. Taxpayers vote, and voters pay taxes, but there's nothing to suggest that the 47% the Tax Policy Center identified as not owing any federal income tax are linked in any particular way to voters.
 Here's the Romney response from late last night:

And you can find more background here - it's an interesting column about the decision to use the 47% trope in the campaign.

Monday, September 17, 2012

The Human Face of Big Data

There's a lot of excitement this morning about the Human Face of Big Data project. It's an attempt to use a smartphone data capture tool to "help measure the world." From September 25 to October 2 participants in what the organizers are calling a "crowdsourced media project" will provide data on their lives, families, sleep, trust, dating and dreams. The idea is to illustrate some of what we can learn about ourselves by aggregating data. There are a lot of practical uses for this kind of data aggregating; you can see some of them by clicking through a series of screens here. There are some cool videos here; you can download the app here if you decide to participate.

I've written before about self-quantifiers, though I'm thinking about participating in this one. The idea of finding a data doppelganger, someone who matches your data closely, which is one of the promised payoffs, is appealing. (Your identity, and your doppelganger's will not be revealed.) The production team was responsible for the Day in the Life series. Judging by the photos and video that's already been produced, the pictures will be beautiful. The screenshot above? It's a photograph showing pizza deliveries in Manhattan.

I have a couple of analysis questions: even with the hoped-for 10 million downloads, is that enough to represent a world with a population of more than seven billion people? And what about people who download the app but contribute only a few data points? There's also some reason to be cautious. According to news reports, the project will not collect identifying information, but the privacy policies have not yet been posted. What do you think? Are you participating? Share your experience in the comments.
I'm coming late to this, I realize, but if you haven't already read it, take a look at Nate Silver's article about weather prediction in the NY Times Magazine of September 9. It's a good explanation of the uncertainty that goes into making predictions based on statistical models, and the assumptions and corrections that are required.

Silver demonstrates how dramatically weather predictions have improved over the last few decades. For an example, you can see my post from last year about the predicted path of Hurricane Irene here, and a follow up post here.

The article is an excerpt from Silver's forthcoming book "The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail - but Some Don't."


Thursday, September 13, 2012

Grammar and employment

If you've ever wondered why grammar matters to some people, this Harvard Business Review column by Kyle Wiens provides a good explanation. His reasons? Grammar, especially when your first contact is in writing (cover letter, resume, website) is how you present yourself to the world. As he puts it:
In blog posts, on Facebook statuses, in e-mails, and on company websites, your words are all you have. They are a projection of you in your physical absence. And, for better or worse, people judge you if you can't tell the difference between their, there, and they're.
And second, grammar requires attention to detail, something that's important in most jobs. Wiens says:
Grammar signifies more than just a person's ability to remember high school English. I've found that people who make fewer mistakes on a grammar test also make fewer mistakes when they are doing something completely unrelated to writing — like stocking shelves or labeling parts.
 If you're interested in exploring the grammar wars further, you can't do better than Fowler's "Modern English Usage". There's also "Eats Shoots and Leaves" by Lynne Truss. What are your favorites?

Monday, September 10, 2012

Conversion shortcut

Here's a math shortcut, new to me, from the very cool Futility Closet blog: you can use consecutive Fibonacci terms to convert miles to kilometers (and back, using the preceding Fibonacci numbers.) For example, 3 and 5. There are about 5 kilometers in 3 miles. To convert back, just reverse: there are about 3 miles in 5 kilometers. It's an estimate, good for figuring things on the fly, not exact.

And it works for numbers that are not Fibonacci numbers - express the original as a sum of Fibonacci numbers, do the conversion for each separately, and add them up. Here's an example from Peteris Krumins' coding blog:
For example, how many kilometers are there in 100 miles? Number 100 can be expressed as a sum of Fibonacci numbers 89 + 8 + 3. Now, the Fibonacci number following 89 is 144, the Fibonacci number following 8 is 13 and the Fibonacci number following 3 is 5. Therefore the answer is 144 + 13 + 5 = 162 kilometers in 100 miles. This is less than 1% off from the precise answer, which is 160.93 km.
And if you're interested, that blog also explains why it works.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Facebook roundup

I published a post a couple of months ago about the high expectations around Facebook's stock trading price right around the time of its IPO. This week there have been a couple of interesting articles analyzing what happened then and since:

Andrew Ross Sorkin, in a NY Times column, blames David Ebersman, Facebook's CFO for "Facebook's catastrophe of an initial public offering." Sorkin goes on to say, about Ebersman:
 He signed off on the ever-increasing offer price, which ended up at $38 after the company had originally planned a price range of $28 to $35.
He — almost alone — pushed to flood the market with 25 percent more shares than originally planned in the final days before the offering. And since then, as the point person for investors, he has done little to articulate how or why the company’s strategy will lift the stock price any time soon.
It's pretty powerful. And yet.

Here, from Business Insider, is a view why what happened might have been not so bad, at least from Facebook's perspective. Facebook took advantage of demand - and as a result the company has a lot of cash available. And here is a column about how the employees feel about the drop in stock price: not so bad.

And finally, here is Henry Blodget arguing that the market got excited, but if investors had read Facebook's IPO prospectus or Zukerberg's letter to shareholders, they would have learned some useful information. For example
  • Facebook's CEO had a nearly unprecedented amount of control over the company.
  • Facebook's CEO had set up this astounding level of control intentionally.
  • Facebook's social mission is more important to Mark Zuckerberg than Facebook's business.
  • Facebook's business exists to support Facebook's product development, not the other way around.
There's more--it's worth reading the entire column. What do you think?

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Arctic Sea Ice Melt

The graph above is the best visual depiction of the extent of the Arctic Sea ice melt I've found. This year, more ice was lost, earlier, than in all the previous years. The illustration shows pretty clearly the difference compared with five years ago and with the 1979-2000 average. The shaded gray area is two standard deviations from that average - and the 2012 line is well below it.

Why does it matter? Well, it's a pretty good sign that the planet is warming, especially, as you can see from the graph, that the loss of ice is also happening earlier in the season. Sea ice is already floating, so it won't raise sea levels. Now forecasters predict that the Arctic Sea will be ice-free in the summer in the next 15 years. And there will likely be other consequences, including further melting of the Greenland ice sheet. And that will raise sea levels. See more details here.

For more information about the extent of the melt, and comparisons with older data, check out the National Snow and Ice Data Center's Arctic Sea Ice page.





Image via: http://nsidc.org/arcticseaicenews/

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Presenting data as pictures

I've spent some time on this blog covering successful representations of data (also here), not to mention some less successful efforts. Today's NY Times includes a review of a book, "Visual Strategies," intended to help people designing visual presentations of data.

The review is worth reading as one of your ten (only 10!) articles if you're not a subscriber. In case you want to skip it, here are the main lessons the reviewer pulls from the book:

¶ Consider how the graphic will be used, and by whom.
¶ Choose a design vernacular: Will you use cartoons, charts, sketches, photos or other elements?
¶ Organize the elements of your graphic and know how they relate to one another.
¶ Identify what’s essential (and, by implication, what can be dropped).
¶ Use color to draw attention, to label things that relate to one another or to express elements like scale.
¶ Add other variables as needed.
¶ Edit and refine. Reduce visual clutter. (Or as [Edward] Tufte once put it, realize that every drop of ink must be in there for a reason.)
If you want to dig a little deeper, go to the Visual Strategies website. I found this story, about the design of a cover story about new understanding of the proton for American Scientist magazine, particularly interesting for its discussion of the process -- including mistakes -- and how much the editors learned by talking with the graphic artists about the picture they were creating.

Screenshot via visual-strategies.org

The ironclad Monitor and social impact bonds

There's a lot of interest in my earlier post about social impact bonds, and I'll be keeping an eye on the topic and providing updates. In the meantime, here's a link to an interesting column from the Harvard Business Review blog (free when you register) pointing out the special funding arrangements required of the designer of the ironclad ship the Monitor because of:
how challenging the Monitor was to the Navy establishment when its inventor John Ericsson and his partner Cornelius Bushnell asked them to approve its design: not only was it "ironclad" unlike the wooden ships of the era, it sailed almost wholly submerged, with only its strange gun turret cresting the waves.
Here's the key passage for our purposes:
Only after more deft politicking by Mr. Bushnell and more explanations from Mr. Ericsson did the board approve it, and only then with special conditions protecting the Navy. It doled out the $275,000 cost in installment payments, and made them all conditional on the Monitor proving itself in a "test"—meaning an actual battle with the enemy.
The authors speculate as to why a funding method that was used during the Civil War was not used much in the interim but has become a creative tool now.
Arguably, today's public sector has become so generally risk-averse that an arrangement designed for an extreme risk situation —dire military threat, drained war chest, dodgy inventor — now is needed for even the surest bets. Meanwhile, perhaps the ranks (and wallets) of socially-minded investors have swelled so dramatically that it's much easier to round up private capital to take flyers on potential game-changers.
Maybe the explanation is somewhat simpler, having to do with large salaries and low taxes. It's a provocative question in any case, and adds a little more color to an interesting picture.

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