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Getting started quickly in the Fragile Families Challenge

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Want to build your first submission to the Fragile Families Challenge in an hour? In this post, we’ll tell you the trick to getting started quickly: the constructed variables.

If you’ve never worked with the Fragile Families data before it can seem daunting. The background file contains 12,943 variables (columns) for 4,242 children (rows), but 56% of the cells in this matrix are missing! Participants often begin by trying to read all the documentation, clean all of the variables, and impute reasonable values for the missing cells. This quickly becomes demoralizing. What else can you do?

Our overall recommendation is to begin with the constructed variables. These 600 variables were “constructed” by the Fragile Families research staff in order to help future researchers, and they were constructed based on multiple reports in order to reduce missing data. For example, the variable cm1relf consolidates the key information from 5 questions asked of the mother about her relationship with the father at the birth of the child. The constructed variables are a great place to start because they:

  • represent constructs social scientists believe to be important
  • have very little missing data
  • are easy to identify because they begin with the letter c (i.e. cm1ethrace is constructed wave 1 mother’s ethnicity and race)
    • There are a small number of exceptions to this convention. For instance, the variable t5tint is a constructed variable indicating whether the teacher was interviewed in wave 5. However, the vast majority of constructed variables begin with c.
    • When we say that constructed variables have little missing data, this statement is restricted to constructed variables that have some data all. In other words, there are some constructed variables are all NA in the Challenge file (e.g., cm1tdiff).

These constructed variables are more fully documented on p. 13-20 of the general study documentation. Further, they are also summarized in this participant-generated open-source dictionary.

A good strategy to get started quickly is to pick some constructed variables, build a very simple model, and get yourself on the leaderboard! You can always build up from there. Participants often begin with cm1ethrace, cf1ethrace, cm1edu, cf1edu, and cm1relf.

Even if you start with the constructed variables, you will be frustrated by missing data. As summarized in our blog post, there is no perfect solution to this problem. We recommend the following workflow:

  1. Start with a small fraction of the total variables. Focus on imputing the missing values for this subset, rather than for all variables in the entire file.
  2. Decide how to address informative missing values (i.e. -6, valid skip). For categorical variables, you might treat valid skips as their own category.
  3. Impute remaining missing values with mean or median imputation. We know that mean or median imputation aren’t great, but they are a reasonable starting point, and you can move to model-based imputation later.
  4. Fit models on your imputed dataset.

About Ian Lundberg

Ian is a Ph.D. student in sociology and social policy at Princeton University. You can read more about his work at http://scholar.princeton.edu/ilundberg/.

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