Can Google Trends predict asylum-seekers’ destination choices?

Paper by Haodong Qi & Tuba Bircan: “Google Trends (GT) collate the volumes of search keywords over time and by geographical location. Such data could, in theory, provide insights into people’s ex ante intentions to migrate, and hence be useful for predictive analysis of future migration. Empirically, however, the predictive power of GT is sensitive, it may vary depending on geographical context, the search keywords selected for analysis, as well as Google’s market share and its users’ characteristics and search behavior, among others. Unlike most previous studies attempting to demonstrate the benefit of using GT for forecasting migration flows, this article addresses a critical but less discussed issue: when GT cannot enhance the performances of migration models. Using EUROSTAT statistics on first-time asylum applications and a set of push-pull indicators gathered from various data sources, we train three classes of gravity models that are commonly used in the migration literature, and examine how the inclusion of GT may affect models’ abilities to predict refugees’ destination choices. The results suggest that the effects of including GT are highly contingent on the complexity of different models. Specifically, GT can only improve the performance of relatively simple models, but not of those augmented by flow Fixed-Effects or by Auto-Regressive effects. These findings call for a more comprehensive analysis of the strengths and limitations of using GT, as well as other digital trace data, in the context of modeling and forecasting migration. It is our hope that this nuanced perspective can spur further innovations in the field, and ultimately bring us closer to a comprehensive modeling framework of human migration…(More)”.