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Can Facebook tell us about the next great human migration?

We enter our hometowns and current locations on Facebook, leaving clues about how we move and where we like to live. And while Facebook uses this information to its advantage sometimes (hence the arrival of targeted ads for Chicago deep dish whenever I return to my midwestern home for the holidays) Facebook’s data team is also making remarkable observations using this data.

In a blog post, the Facebook Data Science team examined “coordinated migration,” or when “a significant proportion of the population of a city has migrated, as a group, to a different city.” 

Looking at the way users change their listed hometowns and current cities, Facebook found that certain places attract a substantial chunk of new residents all from the same place. For instance, one of these places experiencing “coordinated migration” is Miami — a large population of residents have all moved from Cuba. And Facebook found evidence of something called “chain migration” between people from Mexican cities and a handful of U.S. cities, including Chicago, Houston, Dallas, and Los Angeles. Facebook theorizes that these large migrations happen because one person does it successfully and inspires friends, relatives, and an ever-widening circle of contacts to do the same. 

Istanbul is one of the cities with the most instances of coordinated migration. People come in large numbers to the lively metropolis from different parts of Turkey, as well as Bulgaria and Bosnia. 

Now, the users included on this study are self-selecting, and there may be bias when a group of people moves from a place without widespread Facebook use to a place with widespread Facebook use, since it may create a bias that makes it seem like a larger part of the population is moving from one place to another. Not everyone bothers to input both their hometown and their current location onto Facebook, so it’s far from an ideal data set. Also, my friend Roddie insists that he lives in Taipei but he lives in Toronto, so there’s also the whole “people lying” thing to consider. But even if it’s not as accurate as it could be, Facebook’s insight into coordinated migration does showcase how the social network can be used to track broader migratory movements. If Facebook had been around as the Rust Belt tarnished and people in the U.S. moved to the Sun Belt, I’m sure the Data Science team would’ve been able to more or less accurately track that shift — and as the team continues to delve into migratory patterns, it should be able to pinpoint moments of future coordinated migration. 

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