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Friday, September 23, 2016

Is 99.8% accuracy good enough?

There's an article in the Wall Street Journal about the complications of the government declaring you dead, when you aren't. http://www.wsj.com/articles/if-the-government-thinks-youre-dead-thats-really-hard-to-fix-1474474793?mod=e2fb  I couldn't read the article because it was behind a paywall, but did read a couple of other articles about how terrible this can be.



From the fusion.net story:

During his testimony, SSA’s inspector general, Patrick O’Carroll said there is still room for improvement in addressing DMF errors, noting that in a 2008 report they’d found more than 20,000 individuals over a three year period who had been incorrectly declared dead.
“Erroneous death entries can lead to benefit termination—and government underpayments—and cause severe financial hardship and distress to affected individuals,” he said.
The WSJ story evidently includes this quote: " "The VA said its accuracy is around 99.8%...“It might not seem like a big problem statistically but it’s happening more often—and it’s a huge problem if you are not really dead"." 

Is 99.8% good enough?

99.8% doesn't seem very impressive to me. After all, it's not an ambiguous situation. You're either dea or not. It's not like trying to figure out whether you are still a practicing member of a religion, for example.

My friend responded: "One keystroke and the person is deceased. Not unlike a drone pilot except the former is reversible."

Both my friend and I have spent years in marketing. 99.8% would be impressive in marketing (and, in fact, is far above the typical accuracy in, say, target marketing).  But drones? Is that a good comparison?

Drones operate in hostile territory during war. Let's take O'Hare airport, instead. In one month (July 2016) there were over 76 thousand takeoffs and landings. At an error rate of 2 per thousand, that would be about 150 crashes at O'Hare per month. 7.4 million passengers -- that would be almost 15,000 casualties per month. [actually, thinking about numbers like this makes me say a prayer of thanks for the entire airline industry.]

So, clearly some systems both involve the government and are substantially more than 99.8% accurate.  If being declared dead involves a single random keystroke, shouldn't we change that to require a bit more? After all, usually when you want to collect an estate's assets you must provide a death certificate.