Using Facebook data as a real-time census “Determining how many people live in Seattle, perhaps of a certain age, perhaps from a specific country, is the sort of question that finds its answer in the census, a massive data dump for places across the country.

But just how fresh is that data? After all, the census is updated once a decade, and the U.S. Census Bureau’s smaller but more detailed American Community Survey, annually. There’s also a delay between when data are collected and when they are published. (The release of data for 2016 started gradually in September 2017.)

Enter Facebook, which, with some caveats, can serve as an even more current source of , especially about migrants. That’s the conclusion of a study led by Emilio Zagheni, associate professor of sociology at the University of Washington, published Oct. 11 in Population and Development Review. The study is believed to be the first to demonstrate how present-day migration statistics can be obtained by compiling the same data that advertisers use to target their audience on Facebook, and by combining that source with information from the Census Bureau.

Migration indicates a variety of political and economic trends and is a major driver of population change, Zagheni said. As researchers further explore the increasing number of databases produced for advertisers, Zagheni argues, social scientists could leverage Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter more often to glean information on geography, mobility, behavior and employment. And while there are some limits to the data – each platform is a self-selected, self-reporting segment of the population – the number of migrants according to Facebook could supplement the official numbers logged by the U.S. Census Bureau, Zagheni said….(Full Paper).