“Improving the Network Scale-Up Estimator: Incorporating Means of Sums, Recursive Back Estimation, and Sampling Weights.” PLoSOne 10(12): e0143406.
Patrick Habecker, Kirk Dombrowski, and Bilal Khan
Researchers interested in studying populations that are difficult to reach through traditional survey methods can now draw on a range of methods to access these populations. Yet many of these methods are more expensive and difficult to implement than studies using conventional sampling frames and trusted sampling methods. The network scale-up method (NSUM) provides a middle ground for researchers who wish to estimate the size of a hidden population, but lack the resources to conduct a more specialized hidden population study. Through this method it is possible to generate population estimates for a wide variety of groups that are perhaps unwilling to self-identify as such (for example, users of illegal drugs or other stigmatized populations) via traditional survey tools such as telephone or mail surveys—by asking a representative sample to estimate the number of people they know who are members of such a “hidden” subpopulation. The original estimator is formulated to minimize the weight a single scaling variable can exert upon the estimates. We argue that this introduces hidden and difficult to predict biases, and instead propose a series of methodological advances on the traditional scale-up estimation procedure, including a new estimator. Additionally, we formalize the incorporation of sample weights into the network scale-up estimation process, and propose a recursive process of back estimation “trimming” to identify and remove poorly performing predictors from the estimation process. To demonstrate these suggestions we use data from a network scale-up mail survey conducted in Nebraska during 2014. We find that using the new estimator and recursive trimming process provides more accurate estimates, especially when used in conjunction with sampling weights.