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Posts Tagged ‘statistics’

Ways of obtaining empirical data in software engineering

October 23rd, 2013 No comments

For as long as I can remember I have been a collector of empirical data. Writing a book that involves analysis of empirical lots of data has added some focus to my previous scatter gun approach. I have been using three methods to obtain data relating to a recently read paper+one other approach:

  1. Download from researchers website,
  2. Emailing the author requesting a copy of the data,
  3. Reverse engineering numbers from the original paper (using tools like WebPlotDigitizer).
  4. Roll my sleeves up and do the experiment, write the extraction tool or convince a company to make its data available.

A sea change in attitudes to making data available seems to be underway. Until recently it was rare to find a researcher who provided a link for downloading data; in the last 12 months there has been a noticeable increase in the number of researchers making data, associated with a paper, available for download. I hope this increase continues and making data freely available becomes the accepted norm.

I regularly (once or twice a week) email the authors of a paper asking if I can have a copy of their data, typical responses include:

  • Yes, here it is,
  • Yes, but you cannot share it with anybody else (i.e., everybody has to get it from the original author). I have said “Thanks, but no thanks” in these cases since I make all the data I use freely available for download,
  • I no longer have a copy of the data (changed jobs, lost in a computer crash, etc). In one case an established repository at a university lost funding and has gone dark.
  • Data is confidential,
  • Plan to write more papers based on the data, will release it when done (obtaining good data can be very time consuming and I can appreciate researchers wanting to maximize their return on investment),
  • No response.

I have run a few experiments and have been luck enough to obtain data from one company.

When analysing data the most common ‘mistake’ I encounter is researchers failing to get the most out of the data they have. An example of this is two researchers who made some structural changes to the way a Java library worked and then ran a thorough before/after benchmark to investigate the impact; their statistical analysis consisted of reducing the extensive data down to mean+variance and comparing these across before/after (I built a regression model that makes a much stronger case for their claims).

Of course the usual incorrect use of statistical techniques does occur, but I have not spotted anything major. However, one study found: Willingness to Share Research Data Is Related to the Strength of the Evidence and the Quality of Reporting of Statistical Results, based on 49 papers published in two major psychology journals. Since I am concentrating on papers where the data is available I am probably painting an overly rosy picture of not getting things wrong.

As always, if anybody knows of ways of obtaining data that I have not mentioned (e.g., a twitter account to follow) do please let me know.

Learning R as a language

November 30th, 2011 2 comments

Books written to teach a general purpose programming language are usually organized according to the features of the language and examples often show how a particular language feature is interpreted by a compiler. Books about domain specific languages are usually organized in a way that makes sense in the corresponding application domain and examples usually illustrate how a particular domain problem can be solved using the language.

I have spent a lot of time using R over the last year and by dint of reading lots of R code and various introductions to the language I have managed to piece together a model of the language. I rarely have any trouble learning a general purpose language from its reference manual, but users of domain specific languages are rarely interested in language details and so these reference manuals are usually only intended to be read by people who know the language well (another learning problem is that domain specific languages often contain quirky features rarely seen in other languages; in the case of R I was not lucky enough to know enough other languages to cover all its quirky features).

I managed to one introduction to R written from the perspective of the programming language (and not the application domain): the original The Art of R Programming by Norman Matloff has been expanded and is now available as a book.

Summary. If you know another language and want to quickly learn about the languages features of R I recommend this book. I have not taught raw beginners for over 30 years and have no idea if this book would be of any use to them.

This book does not attempt to teach you to think ‘R’, it is not about the art of R programming. The value of this book is as a single source for a broad coverage of lots of language features explained using lots of examples. Yes, more time could have been spent on the organization and fixing inconsistencies in the layout; these are not show stoppers.

Some people might tell you to buy “Software for Data Analysis” by John Chambers. Don’t; if you are a fan of Finnegans Wake and are nostalgic for the mainframe world of the 1970s you might like to give it a go. (I think Bertrand Meyer’s “Object-oriented Software Construction” is still the best book about the design of a language).

Meanderings. What books are good examples of “The Art of …” writing for domain specific languages? Two that spring to mind are: “Algorithms in Snobol 4″ by James Gimpel (still spotted from time to time on second hand book sites) and more recently “SQL For Smarties: Advanced SQL Programming” by Joe Celko.

Yes, I know that R is not really a domain specific language but a language that is primarily used in one domain. Frink is an example of a language containing a major behavior feature that is specific to its intended application domain. I cannot think of any major language feature of R that is specific to statistics.