Research about the pandemic has mostly focused on epidemiology, but health data alone can’t inform policies — decisions should ideally take into account the impacts on communities. Driven by this maxim, Microsoft researchers developed a framework to characterize the changes in people’s physiological, socioeconomic, and psychological needs during the pandemic. After applying the framework to over 35 billion Bing web searches spanning roughly 36,000 ZIP codes over a period of 14 months, the researchers say they uncovered proof the expression of basic needs increased “exponentially” while higher-level aspirations declined.

The researchers make the case that signals about needs can be derived from interactions with search engines. Behaviors through which needs are expressed often involve seeking information or “obtaining tangible support or material items,” they argue, and these are processes in which searches are typically an essential step.

In the course of the study, the coauthors examined five needs categories drawn from Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and 79 subcategories of these needs. To start with, they compiled a corpus containing a sample of anonymized searches from the years 2019 and 2020, paying special attention to variables like the query string, clicks from results, the time, and ZIP code location. In total, the data set captured over 86% of U.S. ZIP codes associated with at least 100 queries per month, validated against both U.S. census data and recent Google search data.

The framework specifically tagged searches falling within one or more categories of needs:

  • Self-actualization needs, which are about realizing personal potential, seeking personal growth, and self-fulfillment. Topics include: hobbies; parenting; wedding; talent acquisition; goals; charity.
  • Cognitive needs, which are about pursuing knowledge and intelligence through learning and discovering. Topics include: online education, learning materials; educational degrees; cognition; memory; focus.
  • Love and belonging, or the social and emotional needs, which include emotionally based relationships like friendship, family, dating, and sexual intimacy. Topics include: mental health or emotions; social network or activities; relationships, dating, divorce, or breakup.
  • Safety needs, which stem from a desire to seek order, stability, and protection from elements in the world. Topics include: personal protection; finances; banking; job search; unemployment; housing.
  • Physiological needs, or the basic animal needs such as air, food, drink, shelter, warmth, sex, and other body needs. Topics include: health; food and groceries; basic staples; sleep; transportation.

Searches were filtered for (1) expressions of “potential satisfiers” (physical or information) for needs and (2) expressions of deficiencies or satisfactions of needs. A query for “bandages” with a subsequent click on Amazon.com was taken to indicate purchase intent satisfying a physiological need, for example, while a search about “online games with friends” was categorized as satisfying a love and belonging need. Meanwhile, a statement like “I feel depressed” was presumed to fit under “love and belonging.”

Microsoft Bing pandemic data

About 9.1% of the search queries — 3.2 billion searches — matched at least one of the needs categories, accounting for things like yearly seasonal variations, weekly seasonal variations, and variations in query volume over time.

The researchers observed heightened physiological and safety needs during the first four weeks of the pandemic (March 16 to April 12) compared with a pre-pandemic baseline, with 11 out of the 12 top needs subcategories falling under physiological and safety needs. Toilet paper purchases saw a 127 times uptick, and stimulus-related searches (including terms like “loan forgiveness”) reached 287 times the baseline, a level that they sustained at least through July. Indicators of social-economic instabilities like searches for “unemployment site visits” and “food assistance” still haven’t returned to their baseline levels, according to the researchers, nor have searches reflecting needs to satisfy lockdown-induced isolation (e.g., queries for “online social activities”).

Microsoft Bing pandemic data

At the same time, there’s been a measurable shift away from positive outlooks. The researchers report self-actualization needs for partnership have declined by more than 64% throughout the typical wedding season around spring and early summer, and queries about life goals have seen a larger or comparable decline. Queries about educational degrees, job searches, job search sites, and housing dipped 34% and haven’t recovered to pre-pandemic levels, meanwhile.

The researchers caution against using the findings to make causal claims because they don’t distinguish between the pandemic and concurrent events like Black Lives Matter protests. But they say the framework could be used to quantify how much social and economic distress a community might be able to endure and examine disparities in the impacts of policies on highly vulnerable populations.

Microsoft Bing pandemic data

Above: Microsoft Bing pandemic data

Image Credit: Microsoft

“Expressions of needs through web interactions could highlight resource deficiencies or barriers,” the researchers wrote. “As regions prepare recovery efforts from the current pandemic or make plans for future disruptions, the methodology we describe can be harnessed to monitor or anticipate a spectrum of needs at various geotemporal granularities.”