I am fairly new to stats and the field of confidence intervals, so I apologize if the question seems trivial.

I am working on a physics experiment and I am measuring the time to occurrence of a particular event. I know occurrence of this event follows a Poisson process.

My question is, if I calculate the average time to occurrence based on 10 such events, how do I calculate the upper and lower error bound (in other words, the confidence interval) of the estimated average. For instance, if I want the estimated average time to occurrence to be within $\pm 20\%$ of the actual mean based on a confidence level, how many samples do I need to record?

Someone told me that I need to use inverse chi-squared distribution, but I would like to have a more in depth tutorial/info in this.

Thank you very much for your time and help.


The first thing is that with a constant intensity Poisson-process with rate $\lambda$ per unit time, the time between events has an exponential distribution with mean $\mu=1/\lambda$.

Second, you actually ask two separate questions, so let's deal with them one at a time.

if I calculate the average time to occurrence based on 10 such events, how do I calculate the upper and lower error bound (in other words, the confidence interval) of the estimated average.

If you average ten such events, the mean is distributed as $\text{gamma}(10,\mu/10)$ (this is the gamma parameterized in the shape-scale form, not the shape-rate form)

If you want a $1-\alpha$ interval for the population mean, then one approach is to construct a pivotal quantity for the mean, which is to say a quantity $Q$ which is a function of the data and the parameter whose distribution doesn't depend on the parameter.

Note that $\hat{\mu}/\mu$ will also have a gamma distribution, it will be distributed as $\text{gamma}(10,1/10)$, so that is a pivotal quantity (and works just fine for this), but it may be easier to work with its inverse $\mu/\hat{\mu}$, which will be distributed as an inverse-gamma distribution, specifically $\text{inverse-gamma}(10,1/10)$.

Similarly, for a sample of size $n$, the distribution of $\mu/\hat{\mu}$ will be $\text{inverse-gamma}(n,1/n)$.

(The inverse chi-square is a particular case of this distribution, and it, too can be used for this purpose, with a suitable rescaling. So the advice you were given was correct, if not immediately helpful to you.)

(I'll assume you want a symmetric (in probability) interval.)

Let $l$ be the $\alpha/2$ quantile of an $\text{inverse-gamma}(n,1/n)$ distribution, and let $u$ be the $1-\alpha/2$ quantile - that is, the values that cut off a lower and upper tail area of $\alpha/2$.

Then $P(l<Q<u) = 1-\alpha$, so a $1-\alpha$ interval for $Q$ is $(l,u)$. Hence we can work out the interval for $\mu$:



where $\hat{\mu}=\bar x$, which is to say a $1-\alpha$ interval for $\mu$ is $(l\,\bar x,u\, \bar x)$

Imagine the sample size was 10, and that the mean time was 3.21 seconds. Further, imagine you wanted a 95% interval.

I'm going to work in R, but anything that will give you gamma, inverse gamma, chi-square or inverse-chi-square quantiles will work.

So here's the 0.025 and 0.975 quantiles of a gamma(10,1/10):

[1] 0.4795389
> qgamma(.975,10,scale=.1)
[1] 1.70848

The corresponding cutoffs for an inverse gamma will be the inverses of these, flipped around:

> 1/qgamma(.975,10,scale=.1)
[1] 0.5853155
> 1/qgamma(.025,10,scale=.1)
[1] 2.085337

So that's our $l$ and $u$ respectively.

Hence a 95% interval for $\mu$ in this example is $(3.21\times 0.5853, 3.21\times 2.0853)$, or $(1.879, 6.694)$

That interval is far bigger that $\pm 20\%$, of course.

If you want to do it in terms of an inverse-chi-square instead, note that a $χ²(\nu)$ is a $\text{gamma}(\nu/2, 1/2)$; from there it's reasonably easy to convert the above calculations.

if I want the estimated average time to occurrence to be within ±20% of the actual mean based on a confidence level, how many samples do I need to record?

This is basically the inverse of the above problem, where we specify information about the interval and solve for $n$

Edit: the approach I took here before didn't quite solve the problem as stated, but a related problem (I solved the true mean being within 20% of the estimates). This version should be right:

An interval that's like this: $0.8 \mu <\hat \mu < 1.2 \mu$

is equivalent to (after dividing by $\mu\,\hat\mu$ and inverting):

$0.833 \hat\mu < \mu < 1.25 \hat\mu$

which is in the right form to play with.

So our interval is $l_n \hat{\mu}<\mu<u_n \hat{\mu}$.

You want to choose $n$ that $u_n>1.25$ and that $l_n<0.833$.

Unfortunately, the distribution of a $\text{gamma}(n,1/n)$ (and, correspondingly, and inverse gamma) is different for every $n$.

One could of course proceed by trial and error and this will work perfectly well, if sometimes being a little tedious.

Half a dozen guesses for the lower limit gets us to:

> n=86;1/qgamma(.025,n,scale=1/n)
[1] 1.250202
> n=87;1/qgamma(.025,n,scale=1/n)
[1] 1.248503

While for the other end:

> n=105;1/qgamma(.975,n,scale=1/n)
[1] 0.8332447
> n=106;1/qgamma(.975,n,scale=1/n)
[1] 0.8339306

Which means we need 106 observations to be within the desired limit on both ends and get the desired coverage.

Note that for the lower end we needed a larger sample size to achieve the desired width. [If you are willing to use an asymmetric interval (asymmetric in probability, I mean), in order to get a symmetric-in-percentage-error interval -- i.e. to be substantially more likely to be wrong out one end of the interval than the other -- then you can achieve a smaller sample size while still getting $1-\alpha$ coverage.]

Computing an asymmetric interval

If we try different values of $n$, we can find how much tail area is cut off either side of the +/-20%, and then find the smallest $n$ that totals to no more than $\alpha$ in the tails. In our example, the first place to try is to 'split the difference' and try $n=96$:

[1] 0.01907025
[1] 0.03033813

Those two tail areas give just under 0.05. Trying n=95 gives more than 0.05 in the tails combined, so n=96 is as small as you can go.

(Note that the 0.03033 value corresponds to the lower tail for the inverse gamma, but it's the probability of the estimate being at least 20% too high)

So if you are happy with more probability of being too high than too low, you can do n=96 for a 95% interval. [A higher coverage ($1-\alpha$) would give a larger $n$, and a lower coverage would give a smaller $n$.]

Simulation example in R to show that this approach is doing what it should. In this example, we calculate the limits ($l$ and $u$) for a symmetric-in-probability (2.5% in each tail) interval based on the 106 just computed:

[1] 0.8339306
[1] 1.221422

Since $l$ and $u$ are within $(0.8333, 1.25)$ if the true mean lies inside that interval the estimate can't be further than 20% from the true mean and by construction, 95% of the time the generated interval includes the true mean, then at least 95% of the time we generate such an interval, the estimate must be within 20% of the true mean.

Now we simulate ten thousand intervals to show it does have the required coverage:

[1] 9507

- looks like it's right.

To avoid (or at least greatly reduce) the trial and error (not that it takes more than a few moments), we can make use of an approximation that will get us very close to the right answer - the Wilson-Hilferty transformation:

If $X \sim χ²(k)$ then $\scriptstyle\sqrt[3]{X/k}$ is approximately normally distributed with mean $\scriptstyle 1-2/(9k)$ and variance $\scriptstyle 2/(9k)$.

  • $\begingroup$ Thank you very much! This is exactly the kind of explanation I was looking for. I have a much better idea what I should do after reading your post. $\endgroup$ – user2675918 Dec 15 '13 at 22:41
  • $\begingroup$ If you'd like an example of the shorter, asymmetric-in-probability interval on the $\pm$20% case, let me know. I may end up doing one anyway, for completeness' sake. $\endgroup$ – Glen_b -Reinstate Monica Dec 15 '13 at 23:07
  • $\begingroup$ Sure, more examples are always better, if its not too much trouble. $\endgroup$ – user2675918 Dec 16 '13 at 1:07
  • $\begingroup$ Done, at least in outline. Considering the second question is more easily tackled with a pivot of $\hat\mu/\mu$, I may have been better using that from the start and dealing with a slightly more fiddly calculation at the start, to save more fiddling later. I may go back and rework the post with that in mind. To double check: I am correct in thinking that your $\pm$20% is asking that $\hat\mu/\mu$ lies between 0.8 and 1.2, right? $\endgroup$ – Glen_b -Reinstate Monica Dec 16 '13 at 2:09
  • $\begingroup$ Hi Glen you are right, that is what I had in mind. But really your original post is already very informative and I think we can easily do the calculation on our own after following your post. $\endgroup$ – user2675918 Dec 17 '13 at 1:06

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