Saturday, February 27, 2010

Surveys, statistics and statistically significant economic tremors

Once in a while, an article would pop up in the news and make me go, "oh great, here comes another guy who is talking about statistics, but knows nothing about it". This article on the BBC made me feel just like that, but luckily only in the first half: How one woman can cause economic boom or bust. However, having finished reading it, I came to appreciate his point. He is portraying how the world, especially when in crisis like these days, is reacting to 0.1% changes in unemployment rate or deviation from economic forecasts, without fully understanding the data source the conclusions are drawn from, or the statistical significance level it can be trusted to.

The author goes quite the distance to move his reader's emotions, and raise my suspicion:

She (the lady in the fictitious story who just lost her job and by chance was surveyed by the Labour Force Survey) is just one of those surveyed. But Eve, unknowingly, is about to move mountains. She will make economies tremble with a 30-minute interview and a cross in a box on a laptop questionnaire.

Vast sums of money will lurch round the world's financial system. Politicians will reel and businesses be broken.

But then he comes back across the line and is in my good books again:
Check the ONS (Office for National Statistics - UK) and it states clearly that the figure is accurate only to 0.2 per cent, most of the time. This means that a rise of 0.1 per cent in the unemployment rate could be consistent with an actual fall in unemployment across the whole economy of 0.1 per cent.

I like his final point the best, suggesting how people should treat survey results - more like clues, not knee jerk reactions to trigger panics:

... feverish times make attention twitchy. Every piece of evidence about the state of the economy is interpreted, explanations offered, forecasts recalculated, and much is made out of little, perhaps too much.

The difference between a rise and a fall is judged with solemn faces when the truth is the change we observe may not even be there. Economic data is never a set of facts; it is a set of clues, some of which are the red herrings of unavoidable measurement error.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Happy Birthday to ThinkOR.ORG - 2 years old

Happy Birthday to ThinkOR!

We are 2 years old. :)

Feb 10, 2008 was when I first registered and started the blog to promote Operations Research (also because I was looking for any reason not to study for exams). As a newcomer to OR, it bothered me that people did not know what OR was/is. It still bothers me, but a bit less now, knowing that I'm doing something (albeit very little), to try to change that, an article at a time.

I've since got a few more contributors to ThinkOR.ORG (thank you guys!), have met a few fellow OR bloggers (hi! *wave*), and have a small group of regular readers. Every month, hundreds of people all around the world (130 countries to be exact) visit the blog. How can you not love technology?

In return, I am always on the look out for interesting topics to write about to share with you all. Now I'm going to pack my backpack in the most optimal way with the objective of minimising space and weight for my trip to India tonight. I have a hunch that I'm going to have a few interesting posts coming up in the next little while. ;)

Happy blogging!

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Bachelor Efficiency.

It seems to be a known fact that confirmed bachelors are at times amazing inventors of time and labor saving methods, gizmos, and procedures. Here is another one.

Recently I was visiting my bachelor friend John at his house and when I was rummaging in his drawers, searching in vain for a spoon, he has proudly shown me his latest labor saving device, (which also explained the lack of spoons in the drawers). He didn’t claim the idea as his own, on contrary; he said it is becoming a trend among their bachelor brethren, but I have seen it for the first time.

He has purchased himself two dishwashers, installed them side by side and is using them alternatively. Filling the one with dirty dishes and taking the clean dishes out of the other. He owns just enough dishes to fill one dishwasher up. This way, when he runs out of dishes, he switches the one full of dirty dishes on and reverses the process. He reports with an extreme satisfaction that he never needs to unload the dishwasher and file the dishes back into the drawers and cupboards. I think there is a lesson here for OR in it.

I’ll call it “The Bipolar Dishwashers Method”.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Healthcare system improvement project management: making a big team work

It's tough chairing meetings, tougher chairing a big meeting (10-15 people), and tougher yet chairing a big meeting that's supposed to last an 8-hour day, one day a week for 6 months. A lot of planning goes into making such a day work with team members varying from the analytical kind to the "feeling" kind, from the surgical kind to the managerial kind. I'm slowly to get a hang of it having done it for a couple months now. The following is a lot of common sense, but if one doesn't have the chance to go through this kind of work with big teams, one may not think it so obvious as an approach. Thought I'd share for whatever it's worth.

  • Make sure everyone is doing something - feeling of usefulness in the group, or else people will feel disengaged.

  • Assuming natural progress of project is from problem discovery, to analysis, to design and implement, and assuming that everyone in a team needs to participate in all phases, then keep telling self that as soon as we get through to design, things will become more exciting. Analysis phase is not everyone's cup of tea, even though geeks like me find it most interesting.

  • Spend the time and create a big poster out of rolling parchment paper. It becomes a live document of all work done on the project to remind team in every meeting of key aims and work accomplished so far. It is a pat on the shoulder for work well done, as well as always showing the direction for the team. Sometimes, one can't see the forest for the trees.

  • Big team, big scope - recipe for getting lost or losing sight easily; remind team of aims frequently; relate how current tasks contribute to the aims.

  • Identify one lead for each main task to be done in the implementation phase. Give team members enough time to develop own plans on how to implement, and write the document themselves to instill ownership from the start (do not use admin resources to do this). Sometimes it takes 2-3 days just to write and re-write the implementation plans, but the time is worth while, not because we need to have a perfect plan as that is unrealistic, but because it forces people to think of all nitty gritties of how get things done and how they would get around specific change management problems. Provide a good example from a colleague of theirs (real examples from real people = trust), but encourage and give them room to be creative. Then everyone on the team should peer review each other's plan with specific review criteria.

  • Once you have all of the above done, engagement level should be pretty high by now, as a healthy amount of sweat and tears will have gone into the implementation plans. I bet anything that you won't be able to hold people back on actioning out those implementation plans.

There you have a much happier and motivated team. There is no sure recipe. This isn't one by any means, but it is working for me so far.