Analysis Recommendations in Context - ARC of Research pt. 1: Asking the Right Questions
A while back, our team published some analysis recommendations for anyone working with our data from the Network Diagnostic Tool (NDT), comparing it to other Internet measurement data sets, and drawing conclusions or inferences about the data. These recommendations are intended to provide guidance about analyzing crowdsourced data, because we know that it’s easy for analyses to end up with what looks like a striking comparison or finding, but that may not actually be supported by the underlying measurements or data. But because recommendations are only that, we’re now beginning a series of posts to unpack those recommendations with some context and examples. First, we’ll recap our previous recommendations post with more context, and finish with an example that we’ll continue working with in subsequent posts.
Since M-Lab started operations back in 2009, we’ve had many audiences. For some of those audiences such as academic or industry researchers, the recommendations made may be familiar. But for audiences that may not have training in statistics, we hope the examples shown in this and in future posts will help illustrate the need for more detailed and nuanced research when it comes to looking at any dataset, but more specifically when analyzing our archives of M-Lab’s open data.
Recommendations about NDT data from M-Lab and comparing NDT data to other, similar data sources
Our previous post focused on differentiating what NDT measures on the M-Lab platform, from similar datasets produced by other platforms. We wrote a whole other post about different data sources and what they measure or represent, so if you haven’t read it, please take a look.
If we have a question we’re hoping to answer with data, the question should be clearly defined and the data we select to attempt to answer the question should contain suitable measurements that can answer it.
For example, while measurements from the NDT test and from Ookla’s Speedtest.net both contain metrics like download speed, upload speed, and latency, that doesn’t mean that we should expect them to be the same. In fact, we don’t expect that because of differing methodologies and different network paths covered by these tools.
What questions can NDT data help answer?
The D in NDT stands for diagnostic. Although it does report “speed” metrics, this speed is more like the rate at which we can upload a single large video or series of photos, or download the same. There are actually many metrics available in NDT results that Internet researchers continue to examine. For example, the single stream “speed” metric doesn’t measure link capacity, but rather how well a single TCP stream can take advantage of that capacity 1. Other metrics concerning the latency of a connection may also be released as our researchers uncover them.
NDT measures how well the Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) performs over your network, through your ISP’s network, to an available M-Lab server in the nearest Internet peering point where they are hosted. Peering points are essentially data centers where different network operators interconnect between their respective networks for the purposes of exchanging traffic. Single-stream measurements do not attempt to emulate a browser, but do reflect the performance of the basic building block for nearly all applications, that is, the single streams themselves. Multiple TCP streams will be more sensitive to loss than single streams, which is why NDT measurements reflect an unaugmented model of TCP’s behavior. Single stream-measurements like NDT do not measure link capacity, but a measurement of TCP’s performance. In this sense NDT is a baseline measurement for a connection’s performance.
But this baseline performance isn’t the same as measuring how much total “speed” you’re able to get over the connection, which is often called link capacity. When people ask whether they’re “getting the speeds they pay for” over their Internet connection, they’re looking for the maximum rate that can be uploaded or downloaded through their connection.
Some questions/topics that NDT data can help answer then are:
- Measuring the interconnections between independent networks
- Identifying the bottleneck between users and the Internet
- Aggregate break down by ISP, time of day, day of week, IP address subnets
- Aggregate break down across different destination transit providers
Analyzing and illustrating any data
Next, let’s review the analysis recommendations our team made back in Feb. 2021:
- Don’t oversimplify too early in your analysis
- Aggregate by ISP in addition to time, date and location
- Be aware of and illustrate multimodal distributions
- Use histograms and logarithmic scales
- Take into account, and compensate for, client bias and population drift**
These recommendations cover a lot of ground! We’ll start with some ideas for not over simplifying in this post, and follow up with more details on the others in subsequent articles.
Don’t oversimplify too early in your analysis
When working with data of any sort, we want to get to a point in our analyses where we can explain what the data is telling us in a simple and straightforward way. In the original post, we suggested “Don’t Oversimplify”, but really we do want to eventually simplify, just not “too early” in the research. In a desire to get a simple summary metric, particularly when that metric is intended to be used as ground truth for some decision, it’s important to not rush to the goal line before considering as many of the issues with the underlying data itself as we can.
In our analysis recommendations post we talked about several topics relating to the care one needs to take when producing simple aggregate statistics like mean and median, which is critical when the analysis seeks a summary metric. Here are some example research questions that might help guide our inquiry:
- A state official interested in how broadband is performing in different regions of their state might ask: What are the median download speeds for zip codes in my state?
- *To research how well an ISP is performing, an analyst might ask: What is the average latency of subscribers to a specific ISP in the first two quarters of 2020?
- And to better understand how the Internet performs depending on what country someone’s in, a journalist might ask: How did each country rank when it comes to upload and download speeds last year?
First, it’s important to acknowledge that each of these questions are legitimate things that people want to know. Each example research question describes the specific thing that someone wants to answer. We don’t want to discourage anyone from asking questions. But we also want to help ensure that the right follow-up questions are asked to help get to a defensible answer. At face value, each of these could be answered by queries to our archive for basic summary statistics of NDT data, but should it be or can it be answered by NDT?
The short answer, with the above framing of the example questions, is probably not. In each of the examples above, a metric is desired to help understand what measurements demonstrate about broadband connections. But as we wrote in our post about different broadband datasets presented by the NTIA, when most people ask these sorts of questions, they are asking in relation to the service level that they’re subscribed plans advertise, or whether in general service as measured is above or below the FCC’s standard for broadband. NDT doesn’t measure either of those things.
NDT is a diagnostic test that measures using a single TCP stream. The single stream “speed” metric doesn’t measure link capacity, but rather how well a single TCP stream can take advantage of that capacity.
This distinction illustrates why we should interrogate any assumptions in our research questions and get as specific as possible. If our desired metric doesn’t align with what the instrument measures, we can still look at the measurements, but the metrics don’t answer our questions correctly.
Below we’ve made some suggested updates to our example research questions, and added a second question that separates what could be answered by Ookla data and what could alternately be answered by NDT data:
|Answered by Ookla||Answered by NDT|
|A state official interested in how broadband is performing in different regions of their state might ask:||How did aggregate download speeds per ISP in each zip code in my state compare with the national broadband standard?||How did the TCP protocol perform per ISP in each zip code in my state when testing beyond ISP last mile networks?|
|To research how well an ISP is performing, an analyst could ask:||What is the average latency between an ISP’s subscribers to a location near the edge of their ISP’s network in the first two quarters of 2020?||What is the average latency between an ISP’s subscribers and a geographically nearest location outside that ISP’s network in the first two quarters of 2020?|
|And to better understand how the Internet performs depending on what country someone’s in, a journalist might ask:||How did each country rank when it comes to upload and download speeds last year?||How did each country rank when it comes to upload and download speeds last year?|
In the first question we’ve added “per ISP” to segment the analysis by provider, and specific text that better describes what each dataset can tell us. Question two adds a time boundary of six months, but doesn’t include a geographic specification. To refine further, we could add time boundaries to question one, which we might want to do so our analysis aligns with the results with the time scales of other datasets. For example Ookla’s aggregate public data is released per quarter and the FCC’s Form 477 data is released every six months. Question two could be refined by referencing geographic boundaries of interest. Combining them, we might arrive at a workable starting point for our analyses:
- How did aggregate download speeds and latency per ISP in each zip code in my state compare with the national broadband standard in 2020?
- How did the TCP protocol perform per ISP in each zip code in my state when testing beyond ISP last mile networks in 2020?
You’ll note that the third research question is unchanged, and highlighted it in red. The reason is to illustrate a question that is way too broad to be adequately answered by either dataset. We could produce a ranking of aggregate speeds for all ISPs together in a country over an entire year with NDT or Ookla data, but the result wouldn’t tell us much about the real state of service in each country.
This discussion and refining of the questions we’re asking is meant to demonstrate the importance of designing question that are specific, and understanding the available data source(s) enough to confirm which can potentially answer them.
In the next post in this series, we’ll dig deeper into the questions we’ve refined here and walk through an example exploration of Ookla and NDT data.
Clark, David; Wedeman, Sara, Measurement, Meaning and Purpose: Exploring the M-Lab NDT Dataset ↩