Policymakers and stakeholders face important data gaps due to the inherent lag between economic activity and the publication of official statistics. To assess economic activity closer to real-time, the Western Development Commission (WDC) has compiled a set of timely economic indicators in an attempt to bridge this gap. The WDC acknowledges that this indicator set is limited given the lack of detailed and frequently published official economic data at the county level. To address this limitation the WDC aims to supplement the regular indicators report with a series of ad-hoc reports based on less conventional data sources. The WDC has now compiled the first such supplement to the initial Timely Economic Indicators report and examines Google Mobility data for the Western Region and Atlantic Economic Corridor (AEC).[1]

Google Mobility is a publicly available dataset compiled by Google to provide insight into how peoples’ movements have changed throughout the pandemic. The dataset provides Google related data on visitor numbers (or duration for the residential category) to various categories of location each day. Within Google Maps if you find a restaurant you will normally see a chart that shows you how busy that establishment is for a typical day and time, this is the type of data that Google mobility is based on. The mobility categories cover retail and recreation (places such as restaurants, cafés, shopping centres, theme parks, museums, libraries and cinemas), grocery and pharmacy (places such as supermarkets, food warehouses, farmer’s markets, specialty foodshops & pharmacies), parks (places like national parks, public beaches, marinas, dog parks, plazas & public gardens), public transport (places that are public transport hubs, such as underground, bus and train stations), workplaces (places of work) and residential (places of residence).

Google measures visitor numbers (or duration in the case of the residential category) and compares this change relative to a baseline before the pandemic outbreak. It is important to note that a return to the pre-pandemic baseline does mean a return to “normal.” For example, suppose retail and recreation mobility was equal to the baseline in December, this would likely be a lower level than normal for December as we might expect December to be a much busier month than the baseline (January/February). As we do not know what “normal” mobility is during any period for any region/county, comparing across regions/counties or comparing the Western Region/AEC to Ireland may be misleading. For example, historical summer retail and recreation mobility in Clifden is likely to have been much higher due to seasonal tourism than the winter months and this disparity between winter and summer is likely to be much larger than say in Dublin City. Looking only at baseline deviations will not accurately capture the comparative changes in normal mobility levels.

Summary

The Google Mobility data is unofficial and unconventional thus we must be careful drawing any strong conclusions. The clearest indication is that there appears to have been large scale compliance with the public health restrictions nationally and in the Western Region/AEC. Retail and recreation, grocery and pharmacy, public transport, and workplace mobility have all risen during the re-opening phases and this suggests a rise in economic activity.

In terms of a tentative look at the regional economic impact so far, the Western Region and AEC counties appear to be close to, have reached or exceeded pre-pandemic mobility in the retail and recreation, grocery and pharmacy, and public transport categories during July and/or August. The national and Dublin levels of mobility in these categories have generally been below or just at the pre-pandemic levels. The national and Dublin trends suggest part of the regional variation in these categories may be explained by domestic tourism or “staycations” in the Western Region and AEC.

Importantly, workplace mobility remains considerably below pre-pandemic levels in the Western Region/AEC and nationally despite an increase. This is also reflected in the labour market analysis within the initial WDC Timely Economic Indicators Report. One must be careful not to draw too strong a conclusion on what the above means for regional economic growth. The Western Region and AEC would normally have high levels of seasonal overseas tourism during the summer months and the economy in these regions is more reliant on the tourism sector, as discussed in previous WDC analysis.

Consequently, the mobility data could still be consistent with relatively lower annual growth or a sharper economic contraction compared with the State. One potential worry might be that the current trend may stem from a seasonal impact of domestic tourism during July and August that may not be sustained through the remainder of the year. We will gain more insight as we move through the year and the WDC plan to revisit the mobility data in the coming months.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of the WDC.

Luke McGrath
Economist
Policy Analysis Team
lukemcgrath@wdc.ie

[1] “Under the WDC Act 1998 the WDC’s statutory remit is to ‘…foster and promote the economic and social development of the Western Region’. Where the Western Region is the seven counties of Mayo, Roscommon, Galway, Sligo, Leitrim, Donegal and Clare. The AEC is the Western Region plus Limerick and Kerry.”