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GROVES: This is not the first such meeting that I’ve attended. In fact, listening to these talks reminds me of the first one, which was in the mid-1970s at a beautiful resort near Berkeley. And the conclusions of that meeting, as I recall, were that we were on the cusp of a revolution. That we could totally automate all of the activities of survey research. And that, in fact, the lessons from then-extant computer science were easily applied to the task because it was a rather simple one.
I think what was missed in that meeting was that the attention was on the design of a questionnaire as a software kind of problem, and what turned out to be more difficult for the field was all the stuff around—the so-called systems stuff that Pat [Doyle] was talking about.
Then the other conclusion was that this would be a radical reduction in cost of collecting data for human and business populations, because it was so easy to change an instrument. It could actually be done at the very last moment; in fact, it could be done in the middle of the field data collection. We [would] really [be] able to completely revolutionize the timeline of development, which at that time people were fretting about.
That didn’t happen either.
And then the final thing was that this should allow us to have stored archives of software that would be applicable to the kinds of questions we ask in all the surveys—because aren’t these surveys similar to one other? And you could just take, say, the demographic questions and store them, and when Pat did it a few years later she could use exactly the same code. Well, what happened to that prediction?
The prediction was naïïve in the sense that the demographic measures haven’t stabilized. They change all the time; the code changes—the functions change.
And so we are where we are.
I have a few things to say, along the same lines. My job, I think, is to attempt—although I can’t— to bring these two perspectives together. [You’ll] find me speaking more to our computer science colleagues, I think, because I want to set the context. I think that’s really important.
The federal government spends about $3 billion a year in statistical activities—that’s not a lot of money, if you think about comparable commercial sectors. And, in fact, the commercial sector in terms of surveys and statistical activities is probably triple the size of that. This is a relatively small enterprise, even though we think of it as our life and everything in the world.
The surveys that are done here are of extremely long duration and are relatively stable … despite what Pat says. [laughter] So, I have colleagues who work at CBS News’ survey unit who have two hours to put together a survey, that is done over a four-hour period, to be reported by Dan Rather the next day. The surveys we’re talking about here are very, very