On the specification of prior distributions for variance components in disease mapping models


  • Enrico Fabrizi Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore, Piacenza
  • Fedele Greco Alma Mater Studiorum - Università di Bologna
  • Carlo Trivisano Alma Mater Studiorum - Università di Bologna




Hierarchical models, Spatial epidemiology, Generalised inverse Gaussian distribution, Intrinsic conditional autoregressive models


In this paper, we consider the problem of specifying priors for the variance components in the Bayesian analysis of the Besag-York-Mollié model, a model that is popular among epidemiologists for disease mapping. The model encompasses two sets of random effects: one spatially structured to model spatial autocorrelation and the other spatially unstructured to describe residual heterogeneity. In this model, prior specification for variance components is an important problem because these priors maintain their influence on the posterior distributions of relative risks when mapping rare diseases. We propose using generalised inverse Gaussian priors, a broad class of distributions that includes many distributions commonly used as priors in this context, such as inverse gammas. We discuss the prior parameter choice with the aim of balancing the prior weight of the two sets of random effects on total variation and controlling the amount of shrinkage. The suggested prior specification strategy is compared to popular alternatives using a simulation exercise and applications to real data sets.


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How to Cite

Fabrizi, E., Greco, F., & Trivisano, C. (2016). On the specification of prior distributions for variance components in disease mapping models. Statistica, 76(1), 93–111. https://doi.org/10.6092/issn.1973-2201/6319