Contrary to the time-consuming conventional way of preparing a census, researchers have said Facebook can be a reliable resource for the exercise and can provide real-time numbers in comparatively less time.
In a study, published in Population and Development Review, Emilio Zagheni from University of Washington said Facebook can serve as an even more current source of information, especially about immigrants by compiling the same data that advertisers use to target their audience on Facebook and combining that source with information from the Census Bureau.
"Facebook data are freely available and disaggregated at the level of city or ZIP code in the US," Zagheni said.
The census is updated once a decade and there is also a delay between when data are collected and when they are published.
As researchers further explore the increasing number of databases produced for advertisers, Zagheni argued that social scientists could leverage Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter more often to glean information on geography, mobility, behaviour 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 US Census Bureau, Zagheni added.
As part of the study, Zagheni and his colleagues also developed a computer programme for extracting data from Facebook Ads Manager about expats from more than 50 countries to every US state, disaggregated by age and sex.
The team also worked on identifying such biases in the Facebook data and their similarities among groups or across states.
They then developed a model that allows researchers to make adjustments by combining information from Facebook and the American Community Survey.
"Is it better to have a large sample that is biased, or a small sample that is nonbiased? The American Community Survey is a small sample that is more representative of the underlying population; Facebook is a very large sample but not representative," Zagheni said.
"With this project, we aim at getting the best of both worlds: By calibrating the Facebook data with the American Community Survey, we can correct for the bias and get better estimates," Zagheni noted.
He said that as a next step, he wants to test the approach in developing countries, where timely and reliable statistics are important for development.