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Facebook's ad targeting tools could be a valuable supplement to census data

Facebook's ad targeting tools could be a valuable supplement to census data
From TechCrunch - October 12, 2017

Official census forms are an invaluable source for demographic data throughout the country, but for trends that occur on the scale of weeks or months rather than years, theyre a bit lacking. But a new study shows that similar data used by Facebook to target ads could help fill in that blind spot.

Sociologist Emilio Zagheni at the University of Washington looked into the possibility, in this case specifically regarding migrants in the U.S. and their movements between states. Hes previously looked at this topic using Google+ and other internet-based metrics.

Say you wanted to know whether East African migrant populations were tending toward settling in cities, suburbs or rural areas. The census process is completed every decade, which really is too long a time to observe short-term trends that follow, for example, an economic recovery or important bill.

But by using, or rather strategically misusing Facebooks Ads Manager tool, one can find reasonably accurate and up-to-date info on, for example, Somalian migrants to the Chicago metro area versus outside the city. Facebook has already extracted all this datawhy not use it?

This data is, of course, not the whole picture. Youre not finding all Somalian folks in the Chicago area, only Facebook users who choose to accurately report their country of origin and current location. Compared with the data in the Census Bureaus American Community Survey, its not very reliable. But its still valuable, Zagheni argues.

Is it better to have a large sample that is biased, or a small sample that is nonbiased? he asks in a UW news release. 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. The idea is that in certain contexts, the sample in the American Community Survey is too small to say something significant. In other circumstances, Facebook samples are too biased.

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