Quantity Versus Quality: A Survey Experiment to Improve the Network Scale-up Method

Am J Epidemiol. 2016 Apr 15;183(8):747-57. doi: 10.1093/aje/kwv287. Epub 2016 Mar 24.


The network scale-up method is a promising technique that uses sampled social network data to estimate the sizes of epidemiologically important hidden populations, such as sex workers and people who inject illicit drugs. Although previous scale-up research has focused exclusively on networks of acquaintances, we show that the type of personal network about which survey respondents are asked to report is a potentially crucial parameter that researchers are free to vary. This generalization leads to a method that is more flexible and potentially more accurate. In 2011, we conducted a large, nationally representative survey experiment in Rwanda that randomized respondents to report about one of 2 different personal networks. Our results showed that asking respondents for less information can, somewhat surprisingly, produce more accurate size estimates. We also estimated the sizes of 4 key populations at risk for human immunodeficiency virus infection in Rwanda. Our estimates were higher than earlier estimates from Rwanda but lower than international benchmarks. Finally, in this article we develop a new sensitivity analysis framework and use it to assess the possible biases in our estimates. Our design can be customized and extended for other settings, enabling researchers to continue to improve the network scale-up method.

Keywords: HIV; acquired immunodeficiency syndrome; epidemiologic methods; network sampling; population size estimation; social networks; survey research.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Drug Users / statistics & numerical data*
  • Epidemiologic Methods
  • Female
  • HIV Infections / epidemiology*
  • HIV Infections / etiology
  • Homosexuality, Male / statistics & numerical data*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Risk Assessment / methods
  • Rwanda / epidemiology
  • Sex Workers / statistics & numerical data*
  • Social Environment*
  • Social Networking*
  • Substance Abuse, Intravenous / complications
  • Substance Abuse, Intravenous / epidemiology*
  • Surveys and Questionnaires