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Seeking a better understanding.

Off-equilibrium correlations and Eyjafjallajökull

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Volcanoes and Iceland are back in the news. so let’s follow that theme and play with Google Labs new tool, Google Correlate.

Give it a test run. I suggest searching for “volcano”, then selecting “iceland” (Direct link, here). Looking at this data is a great example of why choosing your time period matter when performing analysis.

For the total period, 05 January 2003 to 24 April 2011, correlation of search activity for iceland and volcano was 0.8859. “Wow, that’s high!” You may say. Indeed, you’d be right.

Now, if we divide the period into one period before and one period after 20 March 2010 (the date of the first eruption of Eyjafjallajökull eruption in 2010), we can find a remarkably different picture. In the first period, “iceland” and “volcano” show measly correlation of 0.5563. After the first eruption, the two search terms seemingly move in unison with a staggering correlation of 0.9811.

Not so fast. Let’s step back and look at this graph. If  we concentrate on the portion of the graph where most of the scatter plot is concentrated, it is hard to see any relationship between the two search terms. If you put your hand on your computer screen to cover the two left-most dots, the blue trendline is no longer likely to be upward sloping. In fact, if we take out those two right-most weeks of search data the correlation falls to 0.7893. And if we look at the correlation, from 16 May until the latest date, the correlation returns to it’s pre-Eyjafjallajökull level (rho=0.5912).

Kudos to Google for making such an excellent tool and resource publicly available.


Written by Niall

May 25, 2011 at 8:18 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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Part of Life

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On multiple occasions, when discussing their (young) family member’s death, my male Malawian friends say that it is “part of life.”

One phrase contains a life’s worth of emotion and conceals male emotion from the public eye.

Written by Niall

May 22, 2011 at 2:54 pm

Posted in Malawi

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Sloppy Qualitative Reporting?

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Cash Transfer programs have received a lot of research attention in the past dozen years. See here for a summary report.

Replacing food handouts with cash is an increasingly observed trend in Malawi. A piece by Oxfam in the Mail & Guardian does a nice job of presenting the commentary of program participants.

Oxfam’s cash trickle goes a long way in Malawi.

The quant in me would like to see some evaluation evidence on how the Oxfam cash transfers shift the nature and timing of recipients’ consumption. But, I do really enjoy seeing the voices of people receive some coverage. As acknowledge through these quotes, there is a host of foods and non-food (school fees, roofing, medical) that are not easily targeted through in-kind transfers.

However, that is not the main message of this post.

I am really concerned about the confidentiality of those interviewed. Are we to assume that the M&G or Oxfam received authorization to publish people’s pictures, names, age and home district while quoting them as saying things like, “I’m married with two children, and I’m HIV positive. We used to survive on my husband’s charcoal burning and my ganyu.”

There has been some progress in reducing stigma toward people living with HIV/AIDS. But for the vast majority of people it is still very private information.

At the very least, this is sloppy qualitative research and journalism. I understand that the writer wants to put a personal touch to the story. It could have been written with greater assurance that the identity of sources is protected. It’s a shame that a positive story is done so sloppily.

Written by Niall

May 22, 2011 at 2:18 pm

Posted in Journalism, Malawi

Words to heed

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How scary is the trend of repression in Rwanda? Very, says Paul Rusesabagina.

Warning signs are everywhere. Organizations including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch are strongly condemning new election-related repression. Senator Russ Feingold, a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, has spoken out against “renewed abuse of civil and political rights.” The government is recreating the polarizing conditions that helped lead to genocide.

Written by Niall

May 1, 2010 at 12:55 pm

Posted in Africa, Governance, Rwanda

Proposed polygamy ban in Malawi

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Some of the Malawians that we interview are part of a polygamous household. One article suggests that polygamy is present among 12% of households. This week, the government proposed to make polygamy illegal

Christian and Muslim organizations, citing religious and cultural significance, have both come out against the proposed ban.

Not being active within the religious life of Malawians, I cannot comment on the religious significance of polygamy, however, I feel like the social and economic significance of polygamy have received little serious discussion in the debate over polygamy in Malawi.

In some cases, men see it as an expectation or as a conspicuous demonstration of wealth and success. While many women in polygamous households suggest that they accept the custom, I rarely hear from women that are supportive of there husband marrying and additional wife. There are serious cost to breaking up a marriage and divorce is not easy in any country. Even in very poor households decisions must be made about the division of assets and social ties may be threatened. From my observation of the people that we work with and interview, it is possible that polygamy is used as a way to avoid formal and costly matrimonial cessation through divorce. While it may sound crude, adding an additional wife is part of the marriage market in Malawi. Polygamy offers an alternative to divorce as well as an alternative to add to his asset wealth and household productivity.

Let me be clear. Polygamy doesn’t seem to be a good solution to marital discord, nor is acquiring another wife an appropriate demonstration of wealth. And I believe that many women probably do worse in polygamous relationships than they first anticipate.  However, with a high female-male ratio and a shortage of assets diversification options, wives are perceived as an item to expand the productive capacity of a household. As wealth increases among Malawians of options for diversifying assets improve, I propose that we will see a diminishing polygamy rate even in absence of a government imposed ban on the practice.

As for the predicted success of the law, this quote from the secretary general of the Muslim Association of Malawi leds me to believe that the impact of the ban will not be clear:

“I have only one wife, my dear wife… but the moment they proceed with this, I will take a second wife”

Here is Tyler Cowen on polygamy, with some read-worthy links.

Written by Niall

May 1, 2010 at 12:46 pm

Posted in Law, Malawi, politics

The New England Celtics

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No denying regional loyalty here:

Written by Niall

May 1, 2010 at 12:09 pm

Posted in Uncategorized


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It reminds me of a joke that we had in Malawi about the proliferation of useless (and often fraudulent) NGOs – we talked about the NGO TWACIB, which stood for “Two wankers and a computer in Blantyre.”

This joke from Aid Thoughts might be close to home for me, but there is a lot of need for introspection among all NGOs to make sure that, even if you are a wanker, you do no harm.

HT Owen Barder via Bill Easterly.

Barder relays a tale of “too small to succeed”

A friend of mine is the country director of a small NGO based here in Ethiopia. She thinks that what they do is worthwhile, but that they are far too small to be a cost-effective way to help people. Ideally she would like the work she does to be taken over and absorbed into a larger organisation; but there is no way in the aid industry for this to happen.

Written by Niall

November 1, 2009 at 11:53 am

Posted in Uncategorized