Learning Populations of Parameters

Part of Advances in Neural Information Processing Systems 30 (NIPS 2017)

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Kevin Tian, Weihao Kong, Gregory Valiant


Consider the following estimation problem: there are $n$ entities, each with an unknown parameter $p_i \in [0,1]$, and we observe $n$ independent random variables, $X_1,\ldots,X_n$, with $X_i \sim $ Binomial$(t, p_i)$. How accurately can one recover the ``histogram'' (i.e. cumulative density function) of the $p_i$'s? While the empirical estimates would recover the histogram to earth mover distance $\Theta(\frac{1}{\sqrt{t}})$ (equivalently, $\ell_1$ distance between the CDFs), we show that, provided $n$ is sufficiently large, we can achieve error $O(\frac{1}{t})$ which is information theoretically optimal. We also extend our results to the multi-dimensional parameter case, capturing settings where each member of the population has multiple associated parameters. Beyond the theoretical results, we demonstrate that the recovery algorithm performs well in practice on a variety of datasets, providing illuminating insights into several domains, including politics, sports analytics, and variation in the gender ratio of offspring.