Reporting on the AAPOR 69th national conference in Anaheim #aapor

Last week AAPOR held it’s 69th annual conference in sunny (and hot) Anaheim California.

Palm Trees in the conference center area

My biggest takeaway from this year’s conference is that AAPOR is a very healthy organization. AAPOR attendees were genuinely happy to be at the conference, enthusiastic about AAPOR and excited about the conference material. Many participants consider AAPOR their intellectual and professional home base and really relished the opportunity to be around kindred spirits (often socially awkward professionals who are genuinely excited about our niche). All of the presentations I saw firsthand or heard about were solid and dense, and the presenters were excited about their work and their findings. Membership, conference attendance, journal and conference submissions and volunteer participation are all quite strong.


At this point in time, the field of survey research is encountering a set of challenges. Nonresponse is a growing challenge, and other forms of data and analysis are increasingly en vogue. I was really excited to see that AAPOR members are greeting these challenges and others head on. For this particular write-up, I will focus on these two challenges. I hope that others will address some of the other main conference themes and add their notes and resources to those I’ve gathered below.


As survey nonresponse becomes more of a challenge, survey researchers are moving from traditional measures of response quality (e.g. response rates) to newer measures (e.g. nonresponse bias). Researchers are increasingly anchoring their discussions about survey quality within the Total Survey Error framework, which offers a contextual basis for understanding the problem more deeply. Instead of focusing on an across the board rise in response rates, researchers are strategizing their resources with the goal of reducing response bias. This includes understanding response propensity (who is likely not to respond to the survey? Who is most likely to drop out of a panel study? What are some of the barriers to survey participation?), looking for substantive measures that correlate with response propensity (e.g. Are small, rural private schools less likely to respond to a school survey? Are substance users less likely to respond to a survey about substance abuse?), and continuous monitoring of paradata during the collection period (e.g. developing differential strategies by disposition code, focusing the most successful interviewers on the most reluctant cases, or concentrating collection strategies where they are expected to be most effective). This area of strategizing emerged in AAPOR circles a few years ago with discussions of nonresponse propensity modeling, a process which is surely much more accessible than it sounds, but it has really evolved into a practical and useful tool that can help any size research shop increase survey quality and lower costs.


Another big takeaway for me was the volume of discussions and presentations that spoke to the fast-emerging world of data science and big data. Many people spoke of the importance of our voice in the realm of data science, particularly with our professional focus on understanding and mitigating errors in the research process. A few practitioners applied error frameworks to analyses of organic data, and some talks were based on analyses of organic data. This year AAPOR also sponsored a research hack to investigate the potential for Instagram as a research tool for Feed the Hungry. These discussions, presentations and activities made it clear that AAPOR will continue to have a strong voice in the changing research environment, and the task force reports and initiatives from both the membership and education committees reinforced AAPOR’s ability to be right on top of the many changes afoot. I’m eager to see AAPOR’s changing role take shape.

“If you had asked social scientists even 20 years ago what powers they dreamed of acquiring, they might have cited the capacity to track the behaviors, purchases, movements, interactions, and thoughts of whole cities of people, in real time.” – N.A.  Christakis. 24 June 2011. New York Times, via Craig Hill (RTI)


AAPOR a very strong, well-loved organization and it is building a very strong future from a very solid foundation.



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This conference is huge, so I could not possibly cover all of it on my own, so I will try to share my notes as well as the notes and resources I can collect from other attendees. If you have any materials to share, please send them to me! The more information I am able to collect here, the better a resource it will be for people interested in the AAPOR or the conference-


Patrick Ruffini assembled the tweets from the conference into this storify


Annie, the blogger behind LoveStats, had quite a few posts from the conference. I sat on a panel with Annie on the role of blogs in public opinion research (organized by Joe Murphy for the 68th annual AAPOR conference), and Annie blew me away by live-blogging the event from the stage! Clearly, she is the fastest blogger in the West and the East! Her posts from Anaheim included:

Your Significance Test Proves Nothing

Do panel companies manage their panels?

Gender bias among AAPOR presenters

What I hate about you AAPOR

How to correct scale distribution errors

What I like about you AAPOR

I poo poo on your significance tests

When is survey burden the fault of the responders?

How many survey contacts is enough?


My full notes are available here (please excuse any formatting irregularities). Unfortunately, they are not as extensive as I would have liked, because wifi and power were in short supply. I also wish I had settled into a better seat and covered some of the talks in greater detail, including Don Dillman’s talk, which was a real highlights of the conference!

I believe Rob Santos’ professional address will be available for viewing or listening soon, if it is not already available. He is a very eloquent speaker, and he made some really great points, so this will be well worth your time.


In praise of getting things wrong and working toward better

“An expert is a man who has made all the mistakes which can be made in a very narrow field” -Niels Bohr

I’ve been reading “In the Plex,” a book about the history of Google by Steven Levy. I highly recommend this book, because as I read it I am increasingly aware of the ways in which Google’s constant presence invisibly shapes our daily lives. Levy makes a point in the book of attributing some of Google’s constant evolution to its obsession with failure. In search terms, isolating failures is relatively easy- if people soon return to the search page, reframe their query, or continue down through lower ranked results their search was a relative failure. Failures are identified and isolated by Google and then obsessed over until the PageRank algorithm can be appropriately tweaked in a way that passes rigorous testing protocols.

In this way, Google is similar to an increasing number of failure- focused initiatives, including some of the engineering based models that have been applied to healthcare and more. These voices are increasingly the source of innovations that are continually shaping and reshaping our future. But the rhetoric of failure and success of its evangelizers can be hard for us to wrap our heads around, as people who naturally fear, avoid and focus on failure in a negative way.

Over the weekend, while I was practicing Yoga I told one of my kids my favorite part of the practice (note: not a good time for chatting). I love that Yoga is a process. One day you will be able to do something that you may or may not be able to do the next day, and vice versa. My practice involves quite a bit of balancing on one foot, and there are days when that balance feels effortless and days when that balance feels impossible. But the effortless days only come because I continue to practice despite the disappointments of my wobblier days. Yoga instructors sometimes talk about the power of intentions and working in ways that align with our intentions. One of my kids pointed out that the wobbly days, as I call them, are exactly the reason why she hates Yoga. She’s believes that she’s no good at it, and because of her assessment she will avoid it. You can probably guess that this conversation is far from over between us.

We see attitudes like these affecting people (including ourselves) every day. Some people theorize that the lower representation of women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) fields is due to a larger proportion of women than men who doubt their abilities or judge their abilities more harshly. We hear about graduate students who experience what is sometimes called the ‘imposter syndrome.’ I remember some students in my graduate classes who chose not to participate in class for fear they would sound stupid. I’ve heard of medical practitioners who were so worried that they would make another mistake that they were afraid to practice. As a writer, I know that the power of self doubt can cause writers block, but I also know how much easier it is to edit or rewrite.

I would encourage all of you to embrace your failures, your mistakes, your shortcomings, your missteps and your errors and see them as part of a process and not an endpoint. These stumbling points are the key points of growth- the key moments for us to learn and to redirect our actions to better suit our intentions. To err is human, but to learn from our missteps is surely something greater.

More Takeaways from the DC-AAPOR/WSS Summer Conference

Last week I shared my notes from the first two sessions of the DC-AAPOR/ WSS Summer conference preview/review. Here are the rest of the notes, covering the rest of the conference:

Session 3: Accessing and Using Records

  • Side note: Some of us may benefit from a support group format re: matching administrative records
  • AIR experiment with incentives & consent to record linkage: $2 incentive s/t worse than $0. $20 incentive yielded highest response rate and consent rate earlies t in the process, cheaper than phone follow-up
    • If relevant data is available, $20 incentive can be tailored to likely nonrespondents
    • Evaluating race & Hispanic origin questions- this was a big theme over the course of this conference. The social constructiveness of racial/ethnic identity doesn’t map well to survey questions. This Census study found changes in survey answers based on context, location, social position, education, ambiguousness of phenotype, self-perception, question format, census tract, and proxy reports. Also a high number of missing answers.

Session 4: Adaptive Design in Government Surveys

  • A potpourri of quotes from this session that caught my eye:
    • Re: Frauke Kreuter “the mother of all paradata”
      Peter Miller: “Response rates is not the goal”
      Robert Groves: “The way we do things is unsustainable”
    • Response rates are declining, costs are rising
    • Create a dashboard that works for your study. Include the relevant cars you need in order to have a decision maing tool that is tailored/dynamic and data based
      • Include paradata, response data
      • Include info re: mode switching, interventions
      • IMPORTANT: prioritize cases, prioritize modes, shift priorities with experience
      • Subsample open cases (not yet respondes)
      • STOP data collection at a sensible point, before your response bias starts to grow exponentially and before you waste money on expensive interventions that can actually work to make your data less representative
    • Interviewer paradata
      • Chose facts over inference
      • Presence or absence of key features (e.g. ease of access, condition of property)
        • (for a phone survey, these would probably include presence or absence of answer or answering mechanism, etc.)
        • For a household survey, household factors more helpful than neighborhood factors
    • Three kinds of adaptive design
      • Fixed design (ok, this is NOT adaptive)- treat all respondents the same
      • Preplanned adaptive- tailor mailing efforts in advance based on response propensity models
      • Real-time adaptive- adjust mailing efforts in response to real-time response data and evolving response propensities
    • Important aspect of adaptive design: document decisions and evaluate success, re-evaluate future strategy
    • What groups are under-responding and over-responding?
      • Develop propensity models
      • Design modes accordingly
      • Save $ by focusing resources
    • NSCG used adaptive design

Session 5: Public Opinion, Policy & Communication

  • Marital status checklist: categories not mutually exclusive- checkboxes
    • Cain conducted a meta-analysis of federal survey practices
    • Same sex marriage
      • Because of DOMA, federal agencies were not able to use same sex data. Now that it’s been struck down, the question is more important, has funding and policy issues resting on it
      • Exploring measurement:
        • Review of research
        • Focus groups
        • Cognitive interviews
        • Quantitative testing ß current phase
  • Estimates of same sex marriage dramatically inflated by straight people who select gender incorrectly (size/scope/scale)
  • ACS has revised marriage question
  • Instead of mother, father, parent 1, parent 2, …
    • Yields more same sex couples
    • Less nonresponse overall
    • Allow step, adopted, bio, foster, …
    • Plain language
      • Plain Language Act of 2010
      • See handout on plain language for more info
      • Pretty much just good writing practice in general
      • Data visualization makeovers using Tufte guidance
        • Maybe not ideal makeovers, but the data makeover idea is a fun one. I’d like to see a data makeover event of some kind…

Session 7: Questionaire Design and Evaluation

  • Getting your money’s worth! Targeting Resources to Make Cognitice Interviews Most Effective
    • When choosing a sample for cognitive interviews, focus on the people who tend to have the problems you’re investigating. Otherwise, the likelihood of choosing someone with the right problems is quite low
    • AIR experiment: cognitive interviews by phone
      • Need to use more skilled interviewers by phone, because more probing is necessary
      • Awkward silences more awkward without clues to what respondent is doing
      • Hard to evaluate graphics and layout by phone
      • When sharing a screen, interviewer should control mouse (they learned this the hard way)
      • ON the Plus side: more convenient for interviewee and interviewer, interviewers have access to more interviewees, data quality similar, or good enough
      • Try Skype or something?
      • Translation issues (much of the cognitive testing centered around translation issues- I’m not going into detail with them here, because these don’t transfer well from one survey to the next)
        • Education/internationall/translation: They tried to assign equivalent education groups and reflect their equivalences in the question, but when respondents didn’t agree to the equivalences suggested to them they didn’t follow the questions as written

Poster session

  • One poster was laid out like candy land. Very cool, but people stopped by more to make jokes than substantive comments
  • One poster had signals from interviews that the respondent would not cooperate, or 101 signs that your interview will not go smoothly. I could see posting that in an interviewer break room…

Session 8: Identifying and Repairing Measurement and Coverage Errors

  • Health care reform survey: people believe what they believe in spite of the terms and definitions you supply
  • Paraphrased Groves (1989:449) “Although survey language can be standardized, there is no guarantee that interpretation will be the same”
  • Politeness can be a big barrier in interviewer/respondent communication
  • Reduce interviewer rewording
  • Be sure to bring interviewers on board with project goals (this was heavily emphasized on AAPORnet while we were at this conference- the importance of interviewer training, valuing the work of the interviewers, making sure the interviewers feel valued, collecting interviewer feedback and restrategizing during the fielding period and debriefing the interviewers after the fielding period is done)
  • Response format effects when measuring employment: slides requested

Language use & gaps in STEM education

Today our microanalytic research group focused on videos of STEM education.


Watching STEM classes reminds me of a field trip a fellow researcher and I took to observe a physics class that used project based learning. Project based learning is a more hands on and collaborative teaching approach which is gaining popularity among physics educators as an alternative to traditional lecture. We observed an optics lab at a local university, and after the class we spoke about what we had observed. Whereas the other researcher had focused on the optics and math, I had been captivated by the awkwardness of the class. I had never envisioned the PJBL process to be such an awkward one!


The first video that we watched today involved a student interchangeably using the terms chart and graph and softening their use with the term “thing.” There was some debate among the researchers as to whether the student had known the answer but chosen to distance himself from the response or whether the student was hedging because he was uncertain. The teacher responded by telling the student not to talk about things, but rather to talk to her in math terms.


What does it mean to understand something in math? The math educators in the room made it clear that a lack of the correct terminology signaled that the student didn’t necessarily understand the subject matter. There was no way for the teacher to know whether the student knew the difference between a chart and a graph from their use of the terms. The conversation on our end was not about the conceptual competence that the student showed. He was at the board, working through the problem, and he had begun his interaction with a winding description of the process necessary (as he imagined it) to solve the problem. It was clear that he did understand the problem and the necessary steps to solve it on some level (whether correct or not), but that level of understanding was not one that mattered.


I was surprised at the degree to which the use of mathematical language was framed as a choice on the part of the student. The teacher asked the student to use mathematical language with her. One math educator in our group spoke about students “getting away with fudging answers.” One researcher said that the correct terms “must be used,” and another commented about the lack of correct terms as indication that the student did “not have a proper understanding” of the material. All of this talk seems to bely the underlying truth that the student chose to use inexact language for a reason (whether social or epistemic).


The next video we watched showed a math teacher working through a problem. I was really struck by her lack of enthusiasm. I noticed her sighs, her lack of engagement with the students even when directly addressing them, and her tone when reading the problem from the textbook. Despite her apparent lack of enthusiasm, her mood appeared considerably brighter when she finished working through the problem. I found this interesting, because physics teachers usually report that their favorite part of their job is watching the students’ “a-ha!” moments. Maybe the rewards of technical problem solving are a motivator for both students and teachers alike? But the process of technical problem solving itself is rarely as motivating.


All of this leads me to one particularly interesting question. How do people in STEM learning settings distance themselves from the material? What discursive tools do they use? Who uses these discursive tools? And does the use of these tools change over time? I wonder in particular whether discursive distancing, which often parallels female discursive patterns, is more common among females than males as they progress through their education? Is there any kind of quantitative correlate to the use of discursive distancing? Is it more common among people who believe that they aren’t good at STEM? Is discursive distancing less common among people who pursue STEM careers? Is there a correlation between distancing and test scores?


Awkwardness in STEM education is fertile ground for qualitative researchers. To what extent is the learning or solving process emphasized and to what extent is the answer valued above all else? How is mathematical language socialized? The process of solving technical problems is a messy and uncomfortable one. It rarely goes smoothly, and in fact challenges often lead to more challenges. The process of trying and failing or trying and learning is not a sexy or attractive one, and there is rampant concern that focusing on the process of learning robs students of the ability to demonstrate their knowledge in a way that matters to people who speak the traditional languages of math and science.


We spoke a little about the phenomena of connected math. It sounds to me very closely parallel to project based learning initiatives in physics. I was left wondering why such a similar teaching process could be valued as a teaching tool for all students in one field and relegated to a teaching tool for struggling students in another neighboring field. I wonder about the similarities and differences between the outcomes of these methods. Much of this may rest on politics, and I suspect that the politics are rooted in deeply held and less questioned beliefs about STEM education.


STEM education initiatives have grown quite a bit in recent years, and it’s clear that there is quite a bit of interesting research left to be done.

Deeper into the family files; recipes and gendered histories

One picture of my mom really captures me. It is of my parents at a political event, greeting George Will. My mother was heavily involved in politics, and she had likely been one of the event’s organizers, partially responsible for bringing George Will to town. She has a huge smile, and her eyes are sparkling. She is focused on George Will. But George Will is not even looking in her direction. He’s greeting my father, who likely had nothing to do with the event.

The deeper I look into the family files, the deeper my understanding of my mother’s particular brand of feminism grows.

As I grew into a woman, she was proud of me for many reasons, but she never came to grips with my love of cooking. She hated cooking with a passion, and she treated kitchens like they held hostages, like they had latch stations at their gates that clicked into place around unsuspecting ankles as they crossed the threshold. She was a great cook. She created souffles with ease. But she hated the kitchen and hated to see me cook. In fact, I learned to cook against her will, once I’d left home for college. In our lives together we shared many activities, but we never cooked together. She never shared a recipe with me. Granted, I didn’t push. I am a vegetarian, bent on healthy cooking and vegan substitutions, and she was a part of a sour cream generation.

Her kitchen history came alive in a wholly different way as I sorted through her papers. I found boxes, books, clippings and handwritten recipes. I’d seen all of these often in my youth, but I’d never looked through them. As I looked through them now, a new kind of culture began to take shape. These recipes weren’t the anonymous instructions that I find on the internet when I search. They had histories. They belonged to the women that created them. They gave credit to any creative twist on the old standards. They seemed as unique as footprints. And they were clearly passed around quite a bit. I imagined my mom tasting something delicious at a friend’s house and asking for the recipe, and I imagined the pride that the cook had felt in that moment. I can imagine moments like these, but they seem incongruous, deeply out of character for all involved.

Cooking is not simply about our need to fuel our bodies. And it’s a different process for my husband to cook (he loves to cook and has a professional cooking background) than it is for me. My time in the kitchen is part of a deeply gendered history. It is heavy with expectations, ideals and predefined roles. Maybe this is why I avoid recipes? Following a recipe seems to be about creating an ideal and trying to embody it. It’s about believing in your potential to make some fantasy a reality for your family. It’s about embodying a role that has been laid before you. It’s about achieving an unrealistic standard. A successful dish isn’t just food for the belly or a pleasant taste. It’s a sense of accomplishment, a sense of pride, a sense of achievement. It’s about the success of the cook and the nurturing of those around the cook. It connects a woman to a greater tradition of women in the kitchen.

In our histories, people are pegged into traditional societal roles that they may or may not fit into easily. One one hand, they are held back from other roles and relegated to these. But on the other hand, they embody these roles in a way that rises above the call of duty.

These traditions embody uniqueness, a common respect and understanding, a kind of sisterhood, and a common striving. My mom hated the kitchen. But she was a part of a sisterhood that I’m discovering as more of a historian than a participant. Would I trade my professional or academic success for that sisterhood? Absolutely not. But as a woman in the kitchen, I want to understand what these traditions meant to the women who came before me. I want to understand how they redefined them and rose above them. I want to understand how they fit themselves and the women around them into these roles.

I will pass these recipes on to my daughters- not as instructions for cooking or instructions for life, but as a way of carrying on a sisterhood forged by the women who came before us.

I recently accomplished my first successful omelet!

I recently accomplished my first successful omelet!

For further (& really interesting) reading: