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Where are all the tornadoes?

One benefit of a persistent winter in the East may be an unprecedented delay in the spring season of severe thunderstorms and tornadoes. The National Weather Service’s Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla., which began issuing alerts in 1970, has never gone through March without issuing any but that’s a possibility this month.

Helen Hunt and Bill Paxton in the movie "Twister."
Helen Hunt and Bill Paxton in the movie “Twister.”

So far this year, the agency has issued just four tornado watches and no severe thunderstorm watches. A 51-day span between alerts earlier this year was the longest since 1986. And the preliminary tornado count so far this year  – 28 – falls well short of the average seen by this date over the last decade – 193. UPDATED: A tornado touched down in eastern Oklahoma Wednesday, destroying dozens of mobile homes. At least one death was reported. The center also issued the first severe thunderstorm watch of the year.

In an SPC notice updated Monday, meteorologist Greg Carbin said there’s no single reason for the early quiet.  March is typically when severe thunderstorms become common as warm, moist weather systems move north from the Gulf of Mexico and clash with colder air anywhere from the Great Plains to the Mid-Atlantic states. Certain conditions can spin tornadoes from those storm fronts. As a long, cold Eastern winter yields slowly to spring, that hasn’t happened much.

The quiet also means little for the season’s outlook, Carbin said. The busiest and quietest years for early-season tornadoes rarely wind up that way by season’s end.

In a broader analysis issued last year, Carbin found that the number of early-season watches has a weak relationship with the number of watches issued later in the season.

The heart of tornado season occurs in April and May. Plan ahead.

 

tornadochart

 

–Paul Overberg

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Our new geek-in-chief

My data science friends were all a-buzz recently: America now has a Chief Data Scientist.

DJ Patil, a former LinkedIn chief scientist and a chaos theorist, was appointed by President Obama as top cheerleader and data policy officer for Big Data.

“One of the most awesome things for me personally,” said Patil in his post-announcement address to the STRATA conference “is how much our government has embraced data science.”

As evidence, Patil points to the dashboards the President uses, the 135,000 data sets released on data.gov., and how it all contributes to government transparency and solving our social ills.

It is indeed an exciting time. But as the new national spokesman for government data, Dr. Patil has a lot of explaining to do.

The Veterans Administration – the agency awash in charges that dozens of hospital leaders falsified wait-time data to get bonuses while veterans died – recently responded to a USA TODAY open records’ request by sending data as a jpeg, a photo format.

The government didn’t release the data. It released a picture of the data.

That doesn’t even touch the politics that prevent collecting the right data in the first place.

For 19 years, the National Rifle Association has blocked federally-funded gun research. As a result we have almost no national data with details on who is injured or killed by guns, under what circumstances, what caliber, where the gun came from, whether it was illegal, and what works to prevent gun accidents and trafficking.

When an unarmed black teenager in Ferguson, Mo was killed by a police officer, everyone wanted to know: ‘How many people have been shot by cops– black or any race?’

Good luck finding out. In spite of decades of debate, the data is not collected.

So welcome aboard, Dr. Patil. We need a chief geek. But your biggest challenge may be bureaucracy below your new boss.

–Jodi Upton

The measles outbreak showed us how little we know

As the Disneyland measles outbreak spread across the country, reporter Steve Reilly and I started looking for national school-level vaccination data to show pockets of where young children might be most vulnerable.

We couldn’t find it. And neither can the government agency tasked with controlling epidemics.

“It’s incredibly frustrating,” says Anne Schuchat, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Disease at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Although the CDC offers guidelines, it can’t control how state health departments do the work — and strained budgets, staffing shortfalls and indifference means each state collects and reports the numbers differently.

Schuchat told a National Press Foundation panel last month that although data collection is improving, each year the CDC comes to the same conclusion: overall, it’s still pretty lousy.

“Diseases spread at the local level, not at the national or state level,” she says. “The reality is happening neighborhood to neighborhood.”

So what would happen in a disease outbreak more serious than measles? Hard to tell when so many states don’t provide the numbers. Only 13 states collect and report the data along CDC guidelines.

Steve and I contacted officials in each state to get their data. To date, we’ve collected vaccination rates from nearly 45,000 schools in 28 states. We anticipate we’ll get a few more, but we’ll fall far short of a 50-state look at vaccination.

For parents who want to know, California is the best at data collection, capturing figures for each school – broken out by specific vaccine and exemptions – and posts it all online.

Utah collects that same data, but only provides it with a FOIA request. In South Carolina, officials could provide only exemption rates – no word on what vaccines a kid had received. From Nevada we received a sample of the vaccination levels of 3% of the state’s kindergartners, collected from 50 random schools.

And that was in the states that admitted they even had the data. Indiana officials said they didn’t collect it. Ohio officials said it didn’t exist, and when we showed them the web form they use to collect it from each school, they stopped responding to us. People in Maine said they reported the numbers to the CDC and then destroyed the data — even though the whole purpose of collecting it is so the state can identify at-risk communities.

In Hawaii, the Department of Health said residents might get angry at schools if they knew the vaccination rates at some of them, and said that was reason to withhold the numbers.

But there’s some hope for the future. Iowa health officials said USA TODAY’s  efforts convinced them there was public interest in vaccination levels; they plan to publish the school data on their website annually from now on. And Schuchat said with renewed research and media interest this year, the CDC is leaning harder on states to fall in line to collect and report out their numbers.

“We’ve been stressing with the states the need to gather this data in a consistent way,” she says. “It’s of increasing priority to us – we’re pushing it more now.”

–Meghan Hoyer

Wage debate at the Oscars

Actress Patricia Arquette used her moment at this year’s Oscars to spotlight gender pay equity. Admirable. But what do the data say?

arquetteAfter her speech for best supporting actress for “Boyhood,” social media lit up with comments, including an often-repeated, but highly flawed statistic claiming women make 77 cents for each dollar a man makes.

That number comes from a Census Bureau report that compares annual wages, which can include bonuses and investment income, but can be unfair to workers like teachers who don’t get paid in the summer.

A better measure is median weekly earnings, which is what the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports. Their latest figures shows women overall making 81 percent of what men make.

But even that’s flawed because it doesn’t measure women doing the same work. Women often work fewer hours (35 hours is considered full-time here) and are more likely to be in lower-paying occupations.

gender graphic

Women’s wages grow to 91 percent if you compare genders based on educational attainment and experience, and working in the same occupation and industry, according to a study by economists Francine Blau and Lawrence Kahn.

Two other economists, Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz, did a deeper analysis of MBA students. At graduation, males and females had only a tiny difference in salary, they found. But 10 to 15 years later, women’s earnings were 60 percent of men’s.

What happened in the interim? The women were more likely to have taken a break to care for children (especially if they had high-earning husbands), and when working, they were generally clocking fewer hours. The researchers said nearly all of the gap could be explained by these factors.

The women in the study who did not have children had earnings that were 88 percent of male earnings, and economists said that gap can be explained by the fact that the women were disproportionately working in smaller firms, often in the non-profit sector.

These studies raise the question of whether the wage gap is due to discrimination or women’s choices of career and family.  You can read more about this debate here and here and here.

Arquette was basing her comments on personal experience, but outside of anecdotes in leaked Sony emails, getting that data isn’t easy, either. Forbes tried to put together a list of the top 10 highest-earning A-list Hollywood actors between 2013 and 2014. The result? All men.

–MaryJo Webster

Torturing the data till it lies

“Top 10 states for left-handers!” “Worst states for tall people” “Best country to travel to if you are 45!”

The Web is ripe with news features like this. Recipe: Assemble a basket of social measures for states or nations. Blend, rank and present as a measure of some condition. They are usually built as galleries of images or pages. Even as a reward for multiple clicks, they rarely offer a reader-friendly at-a-glance list.

The biggest problem with rankings like this: They use grouped data to conclude something about experiences that are much more tightly linked to local and personal factors.

This is the ecological fallacy. Put simply, you often can’t infer something about individuals because you have data about a group of them. This is especially true if the link that’s being claimed is barely plausible.

state_oatmeal

A simple and famous example: In the 1930 Census, a strong correlation existed between states’ English literacy rates and their shares of foreign-born people. But were immigrants more likely to be literate in English than native-born Americans? No. Census data for individuals showed the opposite, of course – Immigrants were less likely than natives to be literate in English. But immigrants had clustered in states with relatively high literacy rates, so grouped data made them seem more literate than natives.

Another example: In the presidential election of 1968, segregationist George Wallace won the electoral votes of AL, AR, GA, LA and MS. These states had the highest rates of black voters. Should we conclude that blacks voted strongly for Wallace?

States – diverse collections of people acting through laws and policies – exert little or no effect on many conditions in daily life, such as crime. And most social conditions vary within a state far more than they do among states. Data journalists spend a lot of time and sweat trying to get this right by collecting *local* crime rates or  student-pupil ratios before they start probing for patterns.

There are legitimate times to rank states, most obviously on something the state government itself can affect directly, like the climate for startup businesses or the strength of consumer protection laws.

And USA TODAY, has run such lists from content partners. They can be fun, clickable lists. But they really don’t tell us anything about ourselves.

So if your state ranks low as a place to be a coin collector or a Chevy driver, don’t fret.

–Paul Overberg

That stomach-sinking feeling when data is wrong

That nagging feeling that something is wrong with the data? Listen to it.

When my colleague Marisol Bello asked whether we could figure out how often parents kill their children – she was reporting in the wake of a high-profile case in Georgia last summer – I knew we could probably find some help in the FBI’s supplemental homicide reports, which include victim/suspect relationship details. I ran the queries and came up with some preliminary figures, but I also knew the SHR was notoriously spotty, because many cities fail to provide details on murders.

So I started looking for other research on the topic, eventually digging up what can seem to be the gold standard of analysis: a piece co-authored by an Ivy League researcher, and published in a peer-reviewed journal. The only problem? The researchers had found six times as many filicides each year as I did in the FBI data.

I contacted the researchers. They hadn’t used the data directly from the FBI, but rather had used cleaned-up figures publically available from James Alan Fox and Marc Swatt of Northeastern University. That must account for the differences, they said.

But something kept bothering me: According to the researchers’ findings, 3,000 children each year were killed by their parents. Keep in mind that there are roughly 16,000 homicides each year. That would mean that 20% of all victims were children killed by a parent or stepparent. I covered the cops beat for the first four years of my career – I thought back to all the gang battles, lovers’ quarrels and drug deals gone wrong. I could count on one hand the number of child/parent murders I had seen. It certainly wasn’t anywhere near 20%.

So I followed the researchers’ lead, downloaded Fox and Swatt’s data and opened it in SPSS. It didn’t take long to realize each case number, which was supposed to be a unique ID, was in the file six times. A phone call to Fox, who walked me through the data, revealed the researchers’ mistake. Unlike the raw FBI file, Fox and Swatt’s dataset is built for advanced statistical analysis – it has multiple imputations to allow academic researchers to fill in holes that we know exist in FBI data, either where cases are missing entirely or where certain details (the relationship between victim and killer, for instance) aren’t included. Each killing was broken into six lines: the original record, and five different imputations with different weights applied and missing values filled in.

Fox walked me through a way to properly weight cases (his data set includes separate weights for national analysis and state-by-state analysis) and how to properly fill in gaps where relationship details weren’t provided in the raw data.

The upshot? I found that on average, about 450 children are killed by a parent or stepparent each year.

Brown University has since issued a correction to their press release on the researchers’ findings. Marisol and I used the data and our findings in a were published in USA TODAY, along with another follow-up story published later.

(a version of this post was published on the American Press Institute’s Fact-Checking Project blog)

–Meghan Hoyer

Hey baby! What’s in a name

Earlier this year we published a story on the most popular 2014 baby names based on data from BabyCenter, a website that caters to expecting parents. It covers about 1 in 8 newborns.

Nothing wrong with that, but the names tend to skew white and trendy. We won’t have the complete 2014 list until spring, when the Social Security Administration publishes its own list, based on near-universal infant registration for SS numbers.

This is a baby. He was born in 2013 but he does not have a trendy name.
This is a baby. He was born in 2013 but he does not have a trendy name.

A comparison of 2013 top 10 boys’ lists shows, in order:

— BabyCenter: Jackson, Aiden, Liam, Lucas, Noah, Mason, Jayden, Ethan, Jacob, Jack.

— Social Security: Noah, Liam, Jacob, Mason, William, Ethan, Michael, Alexander, Jayden and Daniel.

There’s less difference for popular girls’ names. Sophia/Sofia, Emma, Olivia, Ava, Isabella and Mia rule both lists.

Is that because boys’ names tend to be less trendy? Or parents who choose more traditional names don’t bother to register on this website? In any case, we’re left with a subtly white-centric view of the nursery. Outside of the top names, the lists diverge sharply, especially for traditional names. And BabyCenter’s list is missing several Hispanic names in the top 100, like Angel, Jose, Luis and Juan.

You can also see this in names that moved up the most, according to the SSA list: more ethnic-sounding names such as Jayceon and Castiel for boys, and Daleyza and Freya for girls.

And not for nothing, the names of the Data Team members are past the bubble: All of our names have been losing popularity since at least 2000. Our trendiest member: Paul, who last broke the top 100 (at number 100) 14 years ago.

—Jodi Upton and Paul Overberg

It’s not so easy to count mass killings

Two years ago this month, a particularly horrific mass killing took place in a Newtown, Conn., school. We’re still struggling with how we cover these crimes:

– In September, an FBI report on so-called “active shooter” cases was widely misreported to show that “mass shootings” were increasing. A federal definition shared by several agencies defines “active shooter” as “an individual actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in a confined and populated area.” For its report, the FBI make two tweaks: To include cases where more than one person was shooting and to drop “confined” to include outdoor events. It’s worth pointing out that many of these cases don’t meet the FBI’s definition of a mass killing: four or more dead, not including killer(s).

The FBI just wanted tactical insight, so it also excluded whole categories of potentially qualifying events: “Specifically, shootings that resulted from gang or drug violence—pervasive, long-tracked, criminal acts that could also affect the public — were not included in this study. In addition, other gun-related shootings were not included when those incidents appeared generally not to have put others in peril (e.g., the accidental discharge of a firearm in a school building or a person who chose to publicly commit suicide in a parking lot).”

MK_chart

Wrote the authors: “The study does not encompass all mass killings or shootings in public places and therefore is limited in its scope.”

Resulting headlines at major news organizations: “Mass Shootings on the Rise, FBI Says”;  “Mass Shootings on the Rise, New FBI Study Shows”; “FBI: Mass shooting incidents occurring more frequently”; “FBI study: Deaths in mass shootings increasing.” (Search users beware: A recent check finds many still uncorrected stories on the Web.)

– We continue to update USA TODAY’s interactive graphic of mass killings, published a year ago. We use the FBI’s definition. This year we’ve counted 23, a bit below the average of 30 from 2006-13. (More on that in a minute.) Most weren’t big news outside the towns where they occurred. Typically, they involved a man targeting family members and acquaintances. Most involved guns but a handful did not. None involved semiautomatic rifles, although police haven’t revealed the weapon in a few cases. Almost half of the suspects were found dead or were killed by police. In all, 104 victims were killed, 12 more wounded. Continue reading

People power keeps shifting to Texas

Since the 2015 term of the House of Representatives just began today, it seems early to be thinking about its balance of power in 2023. The political industry never sleeps, however, especially over the big reset that comes after each census, when seats are redistributed among the states.

Hints come from Census Bureau estimates of 2014 state populations released recently. If done today with those estimates, reapportionment would shift a seat from Minnesota to Texas, according to Election Data Services, a Manassas, Va., consulting firm. That’s not much change compared with this time a decade ago, when five states already would have had to swap seats. Thank the slow economic recovery, which has delayed retirements, immigration, marriages, job relocations and the population shifts that they create.

With warnings about tentativeness, Election Data Services also projected House changes by 2020 if each state were to keep growing at its 2010-14 rate. Gainers of a single seat: Ariz., Calif., Colo., Fla., N.C., and possibly Oregon or Virginia. Texas would gain three seats. Losers of a single seat: Ala., Ill., Mich., Minn., Ohio, Pa., R.I., W.Va. and possibly N.Y.

2010map

Unlike much else in Washington, reapportionment can’t be lobbied, earmarked or filibustered. It’s in the Constitution (Article 1, Section 2). It has only been kicked down the road once (in the 1920s). The current formula was set in a 1941 law that has been blessed by the Supreme Court.

Political impacts aside, reapportionment is a gauge of long-term shifts in where we the 2020 pattern seems to be emerging, even if details aren’t clear yet: Fewer shifted seats (9) than the last two reapportionments (12 each). Losses in the Northeast and Midwest, scattered gains elsewhere.

But the pattern is patchy. For example, New York and Massachusetts are growing faster than Sun Belt states like New Mexico, Alabama and Mississippi.

And who knows what the next five years will bring? A decade ago, population shifters like Hurricane Katrina, the Great Recession and the fracking boom lay in the future. — Paul Overberg