Data and methods

Data, and the methods used to analyze them, are the foundation for evidence-based research. Articles in this subject area discuss the value of different types of data collection, and explain important statistical and econometric methods that provide ways to summarize and present information, and to identify and quantify correlation or causality.

  • Big Data in economics

    New sources of data create challenges that may require new skills

    Big Data refers to data sets of much larger size, higher frequency, and often more personalized information. Examples include data collected by smart sensors in homes or aggregation of tweets on Twitter. In small data sets, traditional econometric methods tend to outperform more complex techniques. In large data sets, however, machine learning methods shine. New analytic approaches are needed to make the most of Big Data in economics. Researchers and policymakers should thus pay close attention to recent developments in machine learning techniques if they want to fully take advantage of these new sources of Big Data.
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  • Can lab experiments help design personnel policies?

    Employers can use laboratory experiments to structure payment policies and incentive schemes

    Marie Claire Villeval, November 2016
    Can a company attract a different type of employee by changing its compensation scheme? Is it sufficient to pay more to increase employees’ motivation? Should a firm provide evaluation feedback to employees based on their absolute or their relative performance? Laboratory experiments can help address these questions by identifying the causal impact of variations in personnel policy on employees’ productivity and mobility. Although they are collected in an artificial environment, the qualitative external validity of findings from the lab is now well recognized.
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  • Can “happiness data” help evaluate economic policies?

    “Happiness data” may help assess the welfare effects of a new labor market policy, like a change in benefit generosity

    Robert MacCulloch, January 2016
    Imagine a government confronted with a controversial policy question, like whether it should cut the level of unemployment benefits. Will social welfare rise as a result? Will some groups be winners and other groups be losers? Will the welfare gap between the employed and unemployed increase? “Happiness data” offer a new way to make these kinds of evaluations. These data allow us to track the well-being of the whole population, and also sub-groups like the employed and unemployed people, and correlate the results with relevant policy changes.
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  • Correspondence testing studies

    What can we learn about discrimination in hiring?

    Dan-Olof Rooth, May 2014
    Anti-discrimination policies play an important role in public discussions. However, identifying discriminatory practices in the labor market is not an easy task. Correspondence testing provides a credible way to reveal discrimination in hiring and provide hard facts for policies. The method involves sending matched pairs of identical job applications to employers posting jobs—the only difference being a characteristic that signals membership to a group.
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  • Counting on count data models

    Quantitative policy evaluation can benefit from a rich set of econometric methods for analyzing count data

    Rainer Winkelmann, May 2015
    Often, economic policies are directed toward outcomes that are measured as counts. Examples of economic variables that use a basic counting scale are number of children as an indicator of fertility, number of doctor visits as an indicator of health care demand, and number of days absent from work as an indicator of employee shirking. Several econometric methods are available for analyzing such data, including the Poisson and negative binomial models. They can provide useful insights that cannot be obtained from standard linear regression models. Estimation and interpretation are illustrated in two empirical examples.
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  • Defining informality vs mitigating its negative effects

    More important than defining and measuring informality is focusing on reducing its detrimental consequences

    There are more informal workers than formal workers across the globe, and yet there remains confusion as to what makes workers or firms informal and how to measure the extent of it. Informal work and informal economic activities imply large efficiency and welfare losses, in terms of low productivity, low earnings, sub-standard working conditions, and lack of social insurance coverage. Rather than quibbling over definitions and measures of informality, it is crucial for policymakers to address these correlates of informality in order to mitigate the negative efficiency and welfare effects.
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  • Disentangling policy effects into causal channels

    Splitting a policy intervention’s effect into its causal channels can improve the quality of policy analysis

    Martin Huber, May 2016
    Policy evaluation aims at assessing the causal effect of an intervention (for example job-seeker counseling) on a specific outcome (for example employment). Frequently, the causal channels through which an effect materializes can be important when forming policy advice. For instance, it is essential to know whether counseling affects employment through training programs, sanctions, job search assistance, or other dimensions, in order to design an optimal counseling process. So-called “mediation analysis” is concerned with disentangling causal effects into various causal channels to assess their respective importance.
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  • Do workers work more when earnings are high?

    Studies of independent contractors suggest that workers’ effort may be more responsive to wage incentives than previously thought

    Tess M. Stafford, November 2018
    A fundamental question in economic policy is how labor supply responds to changes in remuneration. The responsiveness of labor supply determines the size of the employment impact and efficiency loss of progressive income taxation. It also affects predictions about the impacts of policies ranging from fiscal responses to business cycles to government transfer programs. The characteristics of jobs held by independent contractors provide an opportunity to overcome problems faced by earlier studies and help answer this fundamental question.
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  • Estimating the return to schooling using the Mincer equation

    The Mincer equation gives comparable estimates of the average monetary returns of one additional year of education

    The Mincer equation—arguably the most widely used in empirical work—can be used to explain a host of economic, and even non-economic, phenomena. One such application involves explaining (and estimating) employment earnings as a function of schooling and labor market experience. The Mincer equation provides estimates of the average monetary returns of one additional year of education. This information is important for policymakers who must decide on education spending, prioritization of schooling levels, and education financing programs such as student loans.
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  • Evaluating the efficiency of public services

    Differences in efficiency in public services can offer clues about good practice

    Geraint Johnes, October 2015
    Efficiency is an important consideration for those who manage public services. Costs vary with output and with a variety of other factors. In the case of higher education, for example, factors include quality, student demographics, the scale and scope of the higher education provider, and the size and character of the real estate. But even when taking all these factors into account, costs vary across providers because of differences in efficiency. Such differences offer clues about good practice that can lead to improvements in the system as a whole. The role of efficiency is illustrated by reference to higher education institutions in England.
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