1.6 The basic steps in a forecasting task

A forecasting task usually involves five basic steps.

Step 1: Problem definition.

Often this is the most difficult part of forecasting. Defining the problem carefully requires an understanding of the way the forecasts will be used, who requires the forecasts, and how the forecasting function fits within the organization requiring the forecasts. A forecaster needs to spend time talking to everyone who will be involved in collecting data, maintaining databases, and using the forecasts for future planning.

Step 2: Gathering information.

There are always at least two kinds of information required: (a) statistical data, and (b) the accumulated expertise of the people who collect the data and use the forecasts. Often, it will be difficult to obtain enough historical data to be able to fit a good statistical model. However, occasionally, very old data will be less useful due to changes in the system being forecast.

Step 3: Preliminary (exploratory) analysis.

Always start by graphing the data. Are there consistent patterns? Is there a significant trend? Is seasonality important? Is there evidence of the presence of business cycles? Are there any outliers in the data that need to be explained by those with expert knowledge? How strong are the relationships among the variables available for analysis? Various tools have been developed to help with this analysis. These are discussed in Chapters 2 and 6.

Step 4: Choosing and fitting models.

The best model to use depends on the availability of historical data, the strength of relationships between the forecast variable and any explanatory variables, and the way the forecasts are to be used. It is common to compare two or three potential models. Each model is itself an artificial construct that is based on a set of assumptions (explicit and implicit) and usually involves one or more parameters which must be "fitted" using the known historical data. We will discuss regression models (Chapters 4 and 5), exponential smoothing methods (Chapter 7), Box-Jenkins ARIMA models (Chapter 8), and a variety of other topics including dynamic regression models, neural networks, and vector autoregression in Chapter 9.

Step 5: Using and evaluating a forecasting model.

Once a model has been selected and its parameters estimated, the model is used to make forecasts. The performance of the model can only be properly evaluated after the data for the forecast period have become available. A number of methods have been developed to help in assessing the accuracy of forecasts. There are also organizational issues in using and acting on the forecasts. A brief discussion of some of these issues is in Chapter 2.