SPSS: The way cool, the good and the just plain stupid

Everybody is talking now about the acquisition of SPSS by IBM. So far, having just come back from the SPSS DIrections conference, I can’t say that I have seen a lot of differences yet. There seemed like there were a few more SPSS people at the conference, which is a good thing. In my experience, the sessions at the Directions conference are uneven, some are really informative – the one on how the Hamilton County, TN schools were using SPSS was great. Basically, everyone from the district to individual teacher level gets regular reports on student progress, down to the detail of whether the student performed worse on word problems or computation on math achievement and up to analyses showing the significant impact of being old-for-grade in elementary school on high school drop out years later. Other sessions were as boring as watching paint dry and it would have been more productive to have sat in the hallway and checked my email. HOWEVER, any chance you have to meet with the folks from SPSS is well-spent. I am totally bummed that I did not have the time to take Jon Peck up on his offer to demonstate some of the extensions.

WAY COOL # 1 : If you go to Directions don’t miss the chance to sign-up for the product experience sessions. You can schedule in advance a meeting with an SPSS expert on your topic of interest. I spent a half-hour with Nancy Morrison learning about the uses of the Missing Values analysis add-on, including pattern analysis and multiple imputation, and the Complex Samples add-on. To use the Complex Samples you need to create a plan file, but this is relatively easy to do. Complex samples allows you to estimate frequencies, means, regression equations and more with stratified samples, cluster samples, etc. and get the appropriate standard errors.

WAY COOL #2: I learned from Nancy that the algorithms for SPSS are included on the SPSS documentation. How did I miss this? I had read several of the books on that CD. If you lost it, like I did (cleanliness is not my best thing, and since I do not have a housekeeper who follows me to work the CD is probably under the tank containing my two frogs, Type I and Type II. ) you can find the algorithms here ftp://ftp.spss.com/pub/spss/statistics/spss/algorithms/ .

A good opportunity to learn more about SPSS are the See It in SPSS events. I’ve been to a few of these and they included examples of using SPSS in teaching (one really cool idea – the professor created a survey on Qualtrics and had students send it to five friends and complete it themselves. This yielded a sample of about 300 that the students analyzed. Undergraduates tend to be intensely interested in themselves – even more than most people – and it was a very creative assignment). Other presentations have included integration of R with SPSS and uses of PASW Modeler.

Way cool # 3: I heard about this at one of the See it in SPSS events and could not believe I had not heard of it before. The Faculty Pack is an amazingly amazing deal. It includes 13 or 14 add-ons (depending on if you have Mac or Windows). Even if, like me, you already have a few of those add-ons licensed through your university, there are sure to be some like Neural Networks, Complex Samples, Custom Tables, Conjoint, Bootstrapping, Missing Values analysis that you don’t have. If you bought these separately you’d pay over $10,000. The Faculty Pack costs $250 a year.

Okay, in case this is starting to sound like an SPSS ad, I have to mention the just plain stupid part. As I asked several people at Directions – what the hell is this with selling software by the byte? BOOT-STRAPPING is an add-on? COMPLEX SAMPLES are an add-on? Come on! Maybe this makes sense at a commercial organization that might have one type of analysis but any mid-sized or larger university is going to have a School of Business, Medicine, Social Work, and a range of others that use a range of applications. When we license SAS, we get every statistical analysis they sell, from survey methods (e.g., surveylogistic, surveyfreq) to structural equation models (calis, tcalis) to all of the ODS graphics, Tabulate, Enterprise Guide and more. When people ask me about using SPSS for some add-on we don’t license I often recommend they use SAS.

Few things at a large institution happen quickly. To add another piece of software to the labs for teaching students usually requires at least two or three levels of approval, and can take a year or more. Even purchasing it for one person requires over a $1,000 for each add-on, at least one level of approval, an internal requisition or check request. It’s easier to just use SAS or Stata that come with all the statistical analyses 95% of the people will ever need all bundled together.

The decision by SPSS to market its software like this is just plain stupid. An article by Michael Mitchell of UCLA on use of statistical software is consistent with what I have always observed, that is, people tend to use what they know, what they learned in graduate school, what their professors used, even when that isn’t always the best tool. One would think, then, that software manufacturers would realize that it behooves them to make it less of a pain in the ass for universities to order and use their software. At our university, we have 33,000 students, about 9,000 faculty and staff, we install the software, provide technical support and classes on how to use it. What the heck more could a company want in the way of ‘evangelists’ for the software? Why can’t SPSS sell its statistics package like everyone else?

Decades ago (yes, I am that old), when I was working on an IBM mainframe, I was very favorably impressed with their customer service. So, hopefully, some of that will spill over on to licensing SPSS.

We’ll see.

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  1. Note that the Algorithms are also part of the online help (v15 and later), so even if you lose the CD and have trouble accessing the ftp site, they’re right there in the product.

  2. And you know, the SPSS on-line help and documentation is surprisingly good, unlike some other packages. I was once asked why we needed to do training, “Don’t the vendors provide documentation?”

    I provided a paragraph out of a Stata manual and that was enough to get everyone to agree that yes, we better have some training classes.

  3. I agree that SPSS should revise their licensing. My institution got a very good
    deal from Statsoft for Statistica.

    SAS does not include Enterprise Miner
    or Text Analysis in their academic package.
    In addition, I think JMP is licensed entirely

  4. Hi Annmaria,

    I read this post with great interest.

    We are presently formulating our academic pricing strategy on our predictive analytics product, and would be very interested in feedback from anyone in academia, as to what an optimal licensing offering would look like.

    If anyone has any thoughts please do post.

    (And of course please feel free to download an evaluation copy!)


    11Ants Analytics

    11Ants Analytics is committed to making advanced data mining accessible to non-technical users. We build incredibly powerful data mining software which is deceptively simple to use.

  5. Wow! This looks totally cool. Plus the guy in the video has a cute accent (-:

    Seriously, looks like a good option for teaching data mining. Unless it has changed (and I have not looked in the last couple of months) the Enterprise Miner offering some SAS on demand works with glacial speed.

    I’m going to download a trial version of 11Ants next week and check it out.

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