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Capture-recapture model

A capture-recapture model is a technique to estimate an unknown population by capturing, tagging, and re-capturing samples from the population.

In the article How many Mechanical Turk workers are there?, Panos Ipeirotis explains a simple version of a capture-recapture model as follows:

The simplest possible technique is the following:

  • Capture/marking phase: Capture \(n_1\) animals, mark them, and release them back.

  • Recapture phase: A few days later, capture \(n_2\) animals. Assuming there are \(N\) animals overall, \(n_1/N\) of them are marked. So, for each of the \(n_2\) captured animals, the probability that the animal is marked is \(n_1/N\) (from the capture/marking phase).

  • Calculation: On expectation, we expect to see \(n_2 \cdot \frac{n_1}{N}\) marked animals in the recapture phase. (Notice that we do not know \(N\).) So, if we actually see \(m\) marked animals during the recapture phase, we set \(m = n_2 \cdot \frac{n_1}{N}\) and we get the estimate that:

\[N=n_1 \cdot \frac{n_2}{m}\]

He adds that this basic version of a capture-recapture model makes the following assumptions, and the estimate \(N\) can be inaccurate when these assumptions are violated:

  • Assumption of no arrivals / departures (“closed population”): The vanilla capture-recapture scheme assumes that there are no arrivals or departures of workers between the capture and recapture phase.

  • Assumption of no selection bias (“equal catchability”): The vanilla capture-recapture scheme assumes that every worker in the population is equally likely to be captured.