Pictured above: I had an interesting discussion with Peri Ballantyne of Trent University about the impact of social networks and public health when I co-sponsored an Ontario Council of Universities event where researchers came to Parliament.
I was flipping through an old issue of the Alumni Weekly from my graduate school when I encountered an article about a sociologist using a recently developed technique called Respondent-Driven Sampling (RDS). You can read about it online but for the purpose of this blog, suffice it to say that uses the mathematics of random walks and networks as well as a special data gathering technique. RDS allows researchers to get statistics on hard-to-reach populations, such as drug users and sex workers. The results have much less selection bias (errors from correlations between how easy it is to reach a person, and the answers they give to your survey) than conventional techniques. Making use of this technique is clearly something that could be important to having the information needed to develop smart public policy.
For example, if you wanted to protect the public from the spread of HIV, it would be important to have information about at-risk populations such as drug users and sex workers, who can be very difficult to sample in an unbiased way.
Apparently the Department of Justice agrees (or, agreed). In its Victims of Crime Research Digest No. 3, published in 2010, Sidikat Fashola, Research Assistant with the Research and Statistics Division of the Department of Justice wrote an article entitled, “Accessing Hard-to-Reach Populations: Respondent-Driven Sampling”.
Then I remembered, earlier in 2014, the Conservative government cut funding for research in the Department of Justice by $1.2 million! According to the Globe and Mail, who obtained an internal report, “The reduction means the loss of eight experienced legal researchers, most of them social scientists.” Now I understand a little bit better the significance of the most recent round of Conservative cuts to federal government research in the Department of Justice.