I sometimes wonder whether some functions and options in SAS software ever get used. Last week I was reviewing new features that were added to SAS/IML 13.1. One of the new functions is the CV function, which computes the sample coefficient of variation for data.
Maybe it is just me, but when I compute descriptive statistics for univariate data, the coefficient of variation is not a statistic that I look at. I don't think my undergraduate statistics course even mentioned the coefficient of variation (CV). I first encountered the idea many years later when learning about distribution theory.
The CV is a simple idea. For a distribution, the coefficient of variation is the ratio of the standard deviation to the mean: CV = σ/μ. You can estimate the coefficient of variation from a sample by using the ratio of the sample standard deviation and the sample mean, usually multiplied by 100 so that it is on the percent scale. This ratio is also known as the relative standard deviation when the data are positive.
What does the coefficient of variation mean?
The coefficient of variation is a dimensionless quantity. As such, it provides a measure of the variability of a sample without reference to the scale of the data.
Suppose I tell two people to measure the heights of some plants. The first person reports that the average height is 1.2 meters, with a standard deviation of 0.275 meters. The second person measures the same plants in centimeters. She reports that the average height is 120 centimeters, with a standard deviation of 27.5 centimeters. Obviously, these are the same answers, but one person reports a standard deviation of 0.275 (which sounds small) whereas the other person reports a standard deviation of 27.2 (which sounds big). The coefficient of variation comes to the rescue: for both sets of measurements the coefficient of variation is 22.9.
The CV can also help you compare two completely different measurements. How does variation in height compare to variation in weight? Or age? Or income? These variables are measured on different scales and use different units, but the CV (which is dimensionless) enables you to compare the variation of these variables.
How to compute the coefficient of variation in SAS
The coefficient of variation is computed by several SAS procedures: MEANS, UNIVARIATE, IML, TABULATE, and so forth. The following example shows data for the plant measurement example in the previous paragraph. The MEANS and IML procedure compute the CV for measurements on the meter and centimeter scales:
data Plants; input height @@; cm = height * 100; datalines; 1.6 1.5 .8 1.0 1.2 .9 1.2 1.8 1.2 1.3 1.3 .9 1.2 1.0 1.1 ; proc means data=Plants N mean std cv; run; proc iml; use Plants; read all var _NUM_ into X[c=varNames]; close; cv = cv(X); print cv[c=varNames];
Theoretical uses of the coefficient of variation
The coefficient of variation has some interesting uses as a theoretical tool. It enables you to compare the variation between different probability distributions. As I mentioned in my article on fat-tailed and long-tailed distributions, the exponential distribution is an important reference distribution in the theory of distributions. Because the standard deviation and the mean of an exponential distribution are equal, the exponential distribution has a CV equal to 1. Distributions with CV < 1 are considered low-variance distributions. Distributions with CV > 1 are high-variance distributions.
Obviously the coefficient of variation is undefined for symmetric distributions such as the normal and t distributions, which is perhaps why the CV is not widely used. The sample CV is undefined for centered data and is highly variable when the population mean is close to zero.
Do you use the coefficient of variation?
Have you ever used the coefficient of variation in a real data analysis problem? Is the CV a useful but underutilized statistic for practical data analysis? Or is it primarily a theoretical tool for comparing the variability of distributions? Leave a comment.