On Divorce and Unemployment Benefit Societies

Sigfrid Lundberg's Stuff 2009-08-10

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Hyunyoung Choi & Hal Varian, Google Research, have claimed that it is possible to make short term economic forcasts using analysis of search terms entered into the Google search engine. In particular, they have shown that there is a positive correlation between the search interest for terms related to the filing for unemployment benefits and the number of people who actually file for unemployment benefits. This number has previously been shown to be a very good predictor of a future increase in unemployment.

The search interest for terms in the Welfare & Unemployment category appear to be a predictor of the number of people filing for benefits. I read these papers & blog entries with great interest. The search data are easily accessible. You retrieve them through a search form, and you can get them in CSV, so they can be loaded into your favorite statistics program via excel or any work-alike.

Fig. 1.

Fig. 1. Time series for search interest for the Swedish term "a kassa" (in red) and the corresponding Danish "a kasse" (in green) with the same meaning.

Having read Choi & Varian's brilliant little paper (well, I'm neither economist nor statistician, but I think it's good), I just had to test this data source myself.

My idea was to track down effects of the recession on everyday life and changes in peoples views of things. It is indeed easy to find such correlations. John Maynard Keynes has experienced a formidable revival during the last six months or so. I had expected to see some shift in interest, where Karl Marx should gain Adam Smith would loose. I think that there is such a trend as well..

Cross country correlation

In Denmark and Sweden we have to become members in a unemployment benefit society, i.e., we have to pay for an insurance policy against unemployment in order to get a sizeable unemployment allowance. There is a governmental dole as well, but that one is really so diminutive that it will hardly keep you from the street. Hence, we hardly get any benefit or allowance as some kind of charity from the other tax payers. You have to pay in advance through your membership in an a kassa in Sweden or an a kasse in Denmark.

Fig. 2.

Fig. 2. The search interest for the Danish search term 'a kasse' (y axis) plotted against the corresponding Swedish 'a kassa' the same week. The green line represent the least square fit. There is quite some scatter but the positive correlation is highly significant (n=177, t=4.252 and P***<0.00004, two-tailed).

Now, these two words does not appear in any other language, and I can safely look up the search interest in Google Insight for Search and be fairly sure that these terms are not used elsewhere. The result is depicted in Fig. 1. Note that for a better part of 2004 one or both columns were zero. I've regarded those as missing values and removed them. The same was true for a few datapoints representing the future. I have plotted the data as delivered, and it seems to me that Google applies some kind smoothing such as a spline function. Their graphs are much smoother than mine.

It seemed to me that major peaks appeared at the same time in both countries. To test this I made a linear regression and correlation analysis. The correlation is indeed highly significant, which would indicate that Swedes and Danes start looking for an unemployment benefit society during the same periods in time. Makes sense to me. The two countries' economies are tightly coupled and both depend on the same global market.

Fig. 3.

Fig. 3. Search interest for the terms 'a kasse' and 'skilsmisse', i.e., unemployment benefit society' and 'divorce', respectively in Danish.

From what I can see, this correlation is OK theoretically. For all practical purposes we can regard the Swedish and Danish as taken from distinct populations, the only factor they have in common is time, and information in media about the international economic development (which off course include the development in the neighboring countries).

Until death do us part

The day after I had convinced myself that the Danes and Swedes recognize the risk for being made redundant at the same time, I read in a Danish news paper that the rise in unemployment was leading to an increase in divorce rate in Denmark. Most people can end their life without help of Internet.

Ending a marriage is a bit more difficult. To divorce you must get in contact with a lawyer and applicable authorities. You need to fill in and sign a lot of forms. All this is something that require information, which users expect to find on the Internet.

Table 1. Top ten divorce related searches in Google, worldwide
Term Search interest
divorce law 100
how to divorce 85
divorce records 85
divorce court 80
divorce laws 75
divorce lawyers 50
jon and kate 45
divorce rate 45
divorce papers 45
divorce lawyer 45

Table 1 shows Google's top ten list for divorce oriented search terms. Jon and Kate are obviously a reality TV series in the US, so this one reflects a voracious appetite for gossip rather than a need for information.

Then there is a group of users who are interested in statistics, such as divorce rate. This won't help you to get a divorce and is purely factual. The same true for divorce law, but here we reach the border line between pure fact and pure HOWTO. It is good to know the law if you need a divorce, isn't it?

All in all, I'd say that more than half of these terms are searches aiming at divorce HOWTO documents. The same is true for Scandinavian search terms.

Fig. 4.

Fig. 4. Correlation analysis between search interest for "skilsmisse" (divorce) and "a kasse" (unemployment benefit society) in Denmark. There is a weak but significant positive correlation r=0.162793, n=194, t=2.28622, P*<0.05 (two-tailed test).

These considerations make it interesting enough to attempt the method I used for correlation above, but now for "divorce" and "unemployment benefit society" within each of the two countries. The Danish statistics is in Fig. 3-4 and the Swedish in Fig. 5-6.

Danish search interest for unemployment benefit societies seemed lower than in Sweden (Fig. 1). Also, the Danish search interest for divorce "skilsmisse" is higher than for unemployment benefit societies "a kasse" (Fig. 3), whereas in Sweden the reverse is true. We Swedes are search less for "skilsmässa" than we do for "a kassa" (Fig. 4).

These correlations, if real, have not, for me at least, any obvious interpretation. A few factoids as a background. I list them without references -- this is not a scientific report, but a blog entry. They my recollections from radio news and the daily newspapers:

Fig. 5.

Fig. 5. Search interest for the terms 'a kasse' and 'skilsmisse', i.e., unemployment benefit society' and 'divorce', respectively in Swedish.

i. Denmark had a lower unemployment before the current recession than had Sweden. This is still true. We have good reasons to look for a good unemployment benefit society.

ii. In Sweden the unemployment is biased such as it affects larger degree affects males than females. This is due to the crisis within the automobile industries we imported from the other side of the Atlantic.

iii. The Danish divorce rate 2.92 per 1000 inhabitants) is higher than the one in Sweden (2.24). Both figures from 2004.

It could be possible to understand the different correlations in Figs 4 and 6 in the light of these three factoids. It would help if there is an asymmetry between males and females, such that the latter are a bit more mercyful towards their unhappy unemployed spouses than are the former. I.e., if Swedish women think somewhat like: Well, I want to leave the bastard, but I don't have to do it this week when he's so miserable. I'll search for "skilsmässa" in Google later on.

Fig. 6.

Fig. 6. Correlation analysis between search interest for "skilsmässa" (divorce) and "a kassa" (unemployment benefit society) in Sweden. There is a significant negative correlation r=-0.30391, n=241, t=-4.93168, P***<0.0000 (two-tailed test).

Concluding remarks

First and formost I wish to point out that the analyses in this blog entry are made by someone who has forgotten most, if not all, the theory behind statistical inference. I've not performed any serious statistical analysis for more than fifteen years. In addition the fact that my knowledge about statistical inference has decayed to below a statistics 101 level, I've never worked with proper time series analysis. I fear that not any of my tests here would hold a critical analysis by a professional. To make sense, the divorce analysis require some kind of time lag. You don't become member of an unemployment benefit society the same week your spouse get fed up with you because of your bad unemployment temper. The latter comes later.

Anyway, the purpose of this note wasn't to make a really serious analysis per se, but to explore Google's claims that one could use search data for serious work. I think they are right. These data are available for free; you can test an idea in a few days and then decide what more experimental & survey kind of data you'll need to make a test your hypotheses.


There are more to say about this.

Unemployment is no fun. The fact that unemployment can break marriges doesn't worry me too much. However, some people cannot live with unemployment. That is much worse.

Obviously there are companies out there subscribing to terms related to suicide, depression, drug abuse, alcoholism and the like as adwords. A superficial look at the ads appearing in relations to such searches doesn't convince me that people who search for help this way necessarily get the best professional help available.

There is a lot to do in this area. There are a many of governmental and charitable organizations that do great work. Serious mental problems should not be treated by quacks, and the subscription to adwords related to such terms should, in my view, not be available to just anyone. I'm not even sure that I think it is a good idea that pharmaceutical industries should sell their drugs this way.


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My name is Sigfrid Lundberg. The stuff I publish here may, or may not, be of interest for anyone else.

On this site there is material on photography, music, literature and other stuff I enjoy in life. However, most of it is related to my profession as an Internet programmer and software developer within the area of digital libraries. I have been that at the Royal Danish Library, Copenhagen (Denmark) and, before that, Lund university library (Sweden).

The content here does not reflect the views of my employers. They are now all past employers, since I retired 1 May 2023.

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