Taking on the Myths of Child Mortality

Hans Rosling, whose fantastic animated-data talks have been featured here before, has a new one about child-mortality trends.

The video was timed to coincide with the release of Bill Gates's 2013 Annual Letter, which notes successful health reforms in Ethiopia and the importance of quality measurements.  "[A]ny innovation -- whether it's a new vaccine or an improved seed -- can't have an impact unless it reaches the people who will benefit from it," writes Gates.

A Better Way to Rank Colleges?

Amidst another scandal surrounding U.S. News and World Report's college rankings, economists Christopher N. Avery, Mark E. Glickman, Caroline M. Hoxby, and Andrew Metrick have proposed another option: rankings based on students' revealed preferences. Here's the abstract:

We present a method of ranking U.S. undergraduate programs based on students’ revealed preferences. When a student chooses a college among those that have admitted him, that college “wins” his “tournament.” Our method efficiently integrates the information from thousands of such tournaments. We implement the method using data from a national sample of high-achieving students. We demonstrate that this ranking method has strong theoretical properties, eliminating incentives for colleges to adopt strategic, inefficient admissions policies to improve their rankings. We also show empirically that our ranking is (1) not vulnerable to strategic manipulation; (2) similar regardless of whether we control for variables, such as net cost, that vary among a college’s admits; (3) similar regardless of whether we account for students selecting where to apply, including Early Decision. We exemplify multiple rankings for different types of students who have preferences that vary systematically.

How to Game a Grading Curve

Students in three of Professor Peter Fröhlich's computer programming classes at Johns Hopkins University recently devised a method to game their final grades.  Frolich grades exams on a curve -- the highest grade in the class, whatever it may be, becomes 100 percent, and "everybody else gets a percentage relative to it."  So students collectively planned a boycott:

Because they all did, a zero was the highest score in each of the three classes, which, by the rules of Fröhlich’s curve, meant every student received an A.

“The students refused to come into the room and take the exam, so we sat there for a while: me on the inside, they on the outside,” Fröhlich said. “After about 20-30 minutes I would give up.... Then we all left.” The students waited outside the rooms to make sure that others honored the boycott, and were poised to go in if someone had. No one did, though.

Catherine Rampell discusses the strategy:

A New Matching Market for Dog Buyers

Al Roth, the Nobel Prize winner and market design guru who's worked on everything from organ exchanges to school matching, posts a reader email about Wagaroo, a new matching market for dog buyers and responsible breeders. Christine Exley, an Economics grad student at Stanford, writes:

It is estimated that 23.5 million people plan to acquire a pet every year.  Of this, 1.5 million intend to buy their pet from a breeder, 5 million are committed to adopting their pet, and 17 million are undecided about the source for their new pet. At the same time, 3 million dogs and cats are killed every year in shelters because they cannot find a home. When you account for people acquiring dogs from shelters, rescue groups, the street (i.e., strays), friends, family members and purebred breeders, there are still over 6 million people acquiring dogs and cats from “other” sources. These other sources (as well as some of the listed sources) are likely puppy mills – places that mass-produce dogs for profit in horrid conditions.

It's Not You, It's the Data

At McSweeney's, Josh Freedman breaks up with his girlfriend, economist-style:

Susan, we need to talk. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately. About us. I really like you, but ever since we met in that econ class in college I knew there was something missing from how I felt: quantitative reasoning. We can say we love each other all we want, but I just can’t trust it without the data. And after performing an in-depth cost-benefit analysis of our relationship, I just don’t think this is working out.

Please know that this decision was not rash. In fact, it was anything but—it was completely devoid of emotion. I just made a series of quantitative calculations, culled from available OECD data on comparable families and conservative estimates of future likelihoods. I then assigned weights to various “feelings” based on importance, as judged by the relevant scholarly literature. From this, it was easy to determine that given all of the options available, the winning decision on both cost-effectiveness and comparative-effectiveness grounds was to see other people.

(HT: Greg Mankiw)

Financial Aid for College Students With Drug Convictions

A new working paper (PDF; abstract) from economists Michael F. Lovenheim and Emily G. Owens examines the effects of federal financial aid, a somewhat controversial issue during last fall's campaign, on the college attendance of students with drug convictions. From the abstract:

In 2001, amendments to the Higher Education Act made people convicted of drug offenses ineligible for federal financial aid for up to two years after their conviction. Using rich data on educational outcomes and drug charges in the NLSY 1997, we show that this law change had a large negative impact on the college attendance of students with drug convictions. On average, the temporary ban on federal financial aid increased the amount of time between high school graduation and college enrollment by about two years, and we also present suggestive evidence that affected students were less likely to ever enroll in college. Students living in urban areas and those whose mothers did not attend college appear to be the most affected by these amendments. 

Is the Analytics Revolution Coming to Football?

In the New Republic, Nate Cohn explores the small but growing role of advanced statistics in football. Projects like Football Freakonomics notwithstanding, the NFL isn't usually thought of as a realm where stats hold all that much sway, in part because the game is so much more of a complex-dynamic system than, say, baseball. Here's Cohn on one big change fans might notice if more coaches start relying on statistics:

The one place where fans could see analytics at work is in play calling, which also happens to be the place where analytics could impact the average fan’s experience of the game. The numbers suggest, for instance, that teams should be aggressive on fourth down, and that it’s better to go for first down with a lead in a game’s final minutes than to run the ball on third down to run out the clock. Yet even the teams with well-regarded analytics departments, including San Francisco and Baltimore, largely adhere to a conservative and traditional play calling approach: the coaches “just aren’t listening to them yet,” [Brian] Burke says. And the few coaches with a reputation for following the statistics, like New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick, aren’t even close to as aggressive as the numbers would advise.  

A Health Upside of Natural Gas

A working paper (PDF; abstract) from economists Resul Cesur, Erdal Tekin, and Aydogan Ulker explores the effects of increased natural gas use on infant mortality:

In this paper, we use the variation across space and time in the expansion of natural gas infrastructure in Turkish provinces using data between 2001 and 2011. Our results indicate that the rate of increase in the use of natural gas has resulted in a significant reduction in the rate of infant mortality in Turkey. In particular, a one-percentage point increase in the rate of subscriptions to natural gas services would cause the infant mortality rate to decline by 4 percent, which could result in 348 infant lives saved in 2011 alone. These results are robust to a large number of specifications.

The authors outline two ways through which the effect may occur:

FREAK-est Links

1. You too can outsource your job to China.

2. What are all those bacteria doing in the troposphere? (academic paper/press summary)

3. How much of your state's road budget is funded by the government?

4. North Korea gets the Google Maps treatment.

The Mixed Blessings of a Welfare Program

A new paper (abstract; PDF) by Gustavo J. Bobonis, Melissa González-Brenes, and Roberto Castro examines the effects the Mexican welfare program Oportunidades on spousal abuse:

Beneficiary women are 40 percent less likely to be victims of physical abuse, but are more likely to receive violent threats with no associated abuse. This evidence is consistent with a model of decision-makers' interactions with asymmetric information in the male partner's gains to marriage, who can then use threats of violence to extract rents from their female partners.

"The article may have important implications for policy, since it provide a mixed view of conditional cash transfer programs’ effectiveness in improving women’s empowerment within the household," the authors wrote in an earlier draft. "The program may increase the likelihood of violent threats, which may in turn compromise women’s emotional health and other aspects of their wellbeing."

In SuperFreakonomics, Levitt and Dubner wrote about another interesting research finding gleaned from Oportunidades data: