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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Empirical Prediction Intervals for County Population Forecasts

  • Author(s): Rayer, Stefan
  • Smith, Stanley K.
  • Tayman, Jeff
  • et al.

Population forecasts entail a significant amount of uncertainty, especially for long-range horizons and for places with small or rapidly changing populations. This uncertainty can be dealt with by presenting a range of projections or by developing statistical prediction intervals. The latter can be based on models that incorporate the stochastic nature of the forecasting process, on empirical analyses of past forecast errors, or on a combination of the two. In this article, we develop and test prediction intervals based on empirical analyses of past forecast errors for counties in the United States. Using decennial census data from 1900 to 2000, we apply trend extrapolation techniques to develop a set of county population forecasts; calculate forecast errors by comparing forecasts to subsequent census counts; and use the distribution of errors to construct empirical prediction intervals. We find that empirically-based prediction intervals provide reasonably accurate predictions of the precision of population forecasts, but provide little guidance regarding their tendency to be too high or too low. We believe the construction of empirically-based prediction intervals will help users of small-area population forecasts measure and evaluate the uncertainty inherent in population forecasts and plan more effectively for the future.

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