A generalized Fellegi-Holt paradigm for automatic error localization 1. Introduction

Data that have been collected for the production of statistics inevitably contain errors. A data editing process is needed to detect and amend these errors, at least in so far as they have an appreciable impact on the quality of statistical output (Granquist and Kovar 1997). Traditionally, data editing has been a manual task, ideally performed by professional editors with extensive subject-matter knowledge. To improve the efficiency, timeliness, and reproducibility of editing, many statistical institutes have attempted to automate parts of this process (Pannekoek, Scholtus and van der Loo 2013). This has resulted in deductive correction methods for systematic errors and error localization algorithms for random errors (de Waal, Pannekoek and Scholtus 2011, Chapter 1). In this article, I will focus on automatic editing for random errors.

Methods for this task usually proceed by minimally adjusting each record of data, according to some optimization criterion, so that it becomes consistent with a given set of constraints known as edit rules, or edits for short. Depending on the effectiveness of the optimization criterion and the strength of the edit rules, automatic editing may be used as a partial alternative to traditional manual editing. In practice, automatic editing is applied nearly always in combination with some form of selective editing, which means that the most influential errors are treated manually (Hidiroglou and Berthelot 1986; Granquist 1995, 1997; Granquist and Kovar 1997; Lawrence and McKenzie 2000; Hedlin 2003; de Waal et al. 2011).

Most automatic editing methods that are currently used in official statistics are based on the paradigm of Fellegi and Holt (1976): for each record, the smallest subset of variables is identified as erroneous that can be imputed so that the record becomes consistent with the edits. A slight generalization is obtained by assigning so-called confidence weights to the variables and minimizing the total weight of the imputed variables. Once this error localization problem is solved, suitable new values have to be found in a separate step for the variables that were identified as erroneous. This is the so-called consistent imputation problem; see de Waal et al. (2011) and their references. In this article, I will focus on the error localization problem.

At Statistics Netherlands, error localization based on the Fellegi-Holt paradigm has been a part of the data editing process for Structural Business Statistics (SBS) for over a decade now. In evaluation studies, where the same SBS data were edited both automatically and manually, a number of systematic differences were found between the two editing efforts. Many of these differences could be explained by the fact that human editors performed certain types of adjustments that were suboptimal under the Fellegi-Holt paradigm. For instance, editors sometimes interchanged the values of associated costs and revenues items, or transferred parts of reported amounts between variables.

In practice, the outcome of manual editing is usually taken as the “gold standard” for assessing the quality of automatic editing. A critical evaluation of this assumption is beyond the scope of the present paper; however, see EDIMBUS (2007, pages 34-35). Here I simply note that, by improving the ability of automatic editing methods to mimic the results of manual editing, their usefulness in practice may be increased. In turn, this means that the share of automatic editing may be increased to improve the efficiency of the data editing process (Pannekoek et al. 2013).

To some extent, systematic differences between automatic and manual editing could be prevented by a clever choice of confidence weights. In general, however, the effects of a modification of the confidence weights on the results of automatic editing are difficult to predict. Moreover, if the editors apply a number of different complex adjustments, it might be impossible to model all of them under the Fellegi-Holt paradigm using a single set of confidence weights. Another option is to try to catch errors for which the Fellegi-Holt paradigm is known to provide an unsatisfactory solution at an earlier stage in the data editing process, i.e., during deductive correction of systematic errors through automatic correction rules (de Waal et al. 2011; Scholtus 2011). This approach has practical limitations, however, because it may require a large collection of if-then rules, which would be difficult to design and maintain over time (Chen, Thibaudeau and Winkler 2003). Moreover, it is not self-evident that appropriate correction rules can be found for all errors that do not fit within the Fellegi-Holt paradigm.

In this article, a different approach is suggested. A new definition of the error localization problem is proposed that allows for the possibility that errors affect more than one variable at a time. It is shown that this problem contains error localization under the original Fellegi-Holt paradigm as a special case. Throughout this article, I restrict attention to numerical data and linear edits; a possible extension to categorical and mixed data will be discussed briefly in Section 8.

The remainder of this article is organized as follows. Section 2 briefly reviews relevant previous work done in this area. In Section 3, the concept of an edit operation is introduced and illustrated. The new error localization problem is formulated in terms of these edit operations in Section 4. Section 5 generalizes an existing method for identifying solutions to the Fellegi-Holt-based error localization problem, and this result is used in Section 6 to outline a possible algorithm for solving the new problem. A small simulation study is discussed in Section 7. Finally, some conclusions and questions for further research follow in Section 8.

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