A new commentary from Susannah Fox explores the question: How closely do online healthcare information seekers reflect their offline counterparts?
There is so much always changing about the Internet and how people use it, plus the rise of social media and all the new devices people use. How does the Pew Internet Project decide what topics and trends are important to study?
The Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project has a broad mandate from the Pew Charitable Trusts to study the social impact of digital technology. We have two broad strategies to do that. The first is to conduct regular tracking surveys of technology users. These surveys ask who is online, who uses cell phones and other gadgets, what activities they pursue with those technologies, and their perceptions of how those technologies fit into their lives.
In the course of doing those surveys, we always collect demographic data and we frequently issue reports and statistics about teens, seniors, men and women, digital divide issues, rural technology use, and a host of other subjects tied to tech-user data.
The second broad strategy driving our research is to focus on six key subjects that cover key aspects of the way the internet is affecting people. We look at the impact of technology on 1) families; 2) communities, both in the real world and the virtual world; 3) health and health care, 4) education, both formal and informal; 5) civic and political life; and 6) work places.
Our writ from the Pew Charitable Trusts is to try to generate data and analysis that will be useful to policy makers, scholars, important organizations of all kinds, and interested citizens. However, we do not do that research with policy recommendations in mind. We do not take positions on policy matters, or promote (or challenge) particular technologies or companies. So, we do our research in a way that we hope those communities might find useful and will interpret in their own way.
From time to time, we feel that this mandate from the Pew Charitable Trusts necessitates that we try to get survey readings on important policy issues such as privacy and identity matters, the way people use and think about e-government services, and the impact of spam. We pick those topics when we believe that insights from technology users will help inform policy debates, so we try to be topical and timely.
We are always assessing the technology environment to see what new gadgets, activities, and applications are emerging and we change our questions based on our sense of when these have reached a critical mass of adoption in the general population. One of the key tools we employ to explore what’s coming next is to ask experts every so often about their views about the future of the internet and the likely social impacts that will occur. This is one of the best ways we know to keep our eyes on the horizon.
We are interested in hearing from stakeholders about the kind of research questions we might tackle. We invite you to send your ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org. And I invite you to sign up to participate in occasional surveys that we conduct of long-time technology users. Email me at email@example.com if you’d like to participate in those surveys.
— Lee Rainie, Director
Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project
The Pew Research Center often receives questions from visitors to our site and users of our studies about our findings and how the research behind them is carried out. In this feature, senior research staff answers questions relating to the areas covered by our seven projects ranging from polling techniques and findings, to media, technology, religious, demographic and global attitudes trends. We can’t promise to respond to all the questions that we receive from you, our readers, but we will try to provide answers to the most frequently received inquiries as well as to those that raise issues of particular interest.
If you have a question related to our work, please send it to firstname.lastname@example.org .
Answer: The subjects that we decide to cover in each of our surveys — and the particular questions we ask about them — are arrived at in a number of ways.
One important factor is, of course, what is happening in the nation and the world. We aim to cover the news. We try to do the best job we can to measure the opinions and attitudes of the public. We focus on those aspects of opinion that are key to press, politics and policy debates. And as part of as those assessments we want also to examine what people know about current events, to test what news they follow and what facts they absorb from it. To the extent possible, we want to do all that in real time — while the issues involved are still on the front burner.
How accurate are the statistics derived from Pew Research polls when applied to the population of the United States?
Answer: The accuracy of polls can be judged in different ways. One is the degree to which the sample of the public interviewed for the poll is representative of the whole population. For example, does the poll include the proper proportions of older and younger adults, of people of different races, or of men and women? Another standard for accuracy is whether the poll’s questions correctly measure the attitudes or relevant behaviors of the people who are interviewed. For both of these ways of judging accuracy, Pew Research’s polls do very well. We know that key characteristics of our samples conform closely to known population parameters from large government surveys such as the U.S. Census. Similarly, our final polls in major national elections have a very good track record of measuring intended behavior because they accurately predict the election results (we came within one percentage point of predicting the margin of victory for Barack Obama in 2008, and Republican candidates for the U.S. House in 2010).
To improve the accuracy of our polls, we statistically adjust our samples so that they match the population in terms of the most important demographic characteristics such as education and region (see our detailed methodology statement for more about how this is done). This practice, called weighting, is commonly used in survey research.
- Scott Keeter, Director of Survey Research, Pew Research Center
Question: On “news” sites, one reads daily that “43% surveyed think this,” or “72% of …. name the group” are doing this. Yet, when one performs due diligence, the statistic recedes into non-importance, because so many surveys involve, say, 1,146 respondents. With a population approaching 300 million, how can any responsible news source report such insignificant data?
Answer: A lot of people share your skepticism about sampling. It is not intuitively easy to grasp how a very small sample of a very large population can be accurate. But pollsters have a stock (if smart-alec) reply: If you don’t believe in random sampling, ask your doctor to take all of your blood next time you need a blood test. Indeed, sampling is used in many fields — by accountants looking for fraud, medical researchers, even manufacturers doing quality control checks on their products. The key for survey sampling is that every person in the population (in our case, adults living in the U.S.) has a chance of being included, and that pollsters have a way to calculate that chance. Our samples are constructed in such a way that nearly every telephone in the U.S. — cell phones as well as landlines — has an equal chance of being included. This permits us to put a margin of likely error on our findings and to say how confident we are in the result.
Question: I — and most of my friends — only have a cell phone … and no landline. Are we represented in your polls? If so, how? There is no cell phone directory, is there?
Answer: Yes, indeed, you are represented in our polls. We routinely call cell phones — and we hope you will take our call if it comes! There are many cell-only people like you. According to Pew Research Center estimates based on government data, nearly one-quarter of adults in the U.S. (24%) now live in households with only a cell phone and no landline … about twice as many as live in households with a landline but no cell phone. Because the cell-only are very different from people who can be reached by landline (e.g., much younger, more likely to be renting, more likely to be black or Hispanic), it’s important to make sure they are represented in our polls. Nearly all Pew Research surveys now routinely include cell phones in their samples. At the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, we attempt to interview approximately one-third of the respondents for each survey on a cell phone (not all of these people are cell-only, but many of them are).
You are correct that there is no cell phone directory. But databases maintained by the telecommunications industry allow us to identify the specific prefixes and 1000-blocks of numbers to which most cell phone numbers are assigned (these are usually separate from the prefixes and blocks assigned to landline phones). From these known blocks of numbers, we can randomly generate complete telephone numbers that have a high likelihood of being working cell phone numbers. Federal law prohibits using an automatic dialing system to call these numbers, so our interviewers manually dial them. To help compensate cell phone owners for the possibility that they are paying for the call by using up their minutes, we offer to send them a small financial reimbursement.
You can find more details about our telephone survey methods in a special section at people-press.org.
- Scott Keeter, Director of Survey Research, Pew Research Center
The Pew Research Center often receives questions from visitors to our site and users of our studies about our findings and how the research behind them is carried out. In a new feature, senior research staff will answer questions relating to all the areas covered by our seven projects ranging from polling techniques and findings, to media, technology, religious, demographic and global attitudes trends. We can’t promise to respond to all the questions that we receive from you, our readers, but we will try to provide answers to the most frequently received inquiries as well as to those that raise issues of particular interest.