The work of economists during the crisis: The EEA COVID-19 research registry initiative
COVID-19 has forced countries around the globe to simultaneously face the severest health, economic, and social challenges that most of us can recall in our lifetimes. As of 27 May 2020, there have been over 5.4 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 around the globe and nearly 350,000 confirmed deaths. At the same time, unemployment has increased substantially in many countries and the GDP of the largest economies in Europe and in the US has contracted as of end-May 2020. As Figure 1 shows, every continent has been affected, with the centre of the pandemic shifting from Asia to Europe and now the Americas.
Figure 1 WHO Dashboard of confirmed cases of COVID-19, 27 May 2020
The health crisis and uncertainty around the pandemic, coupled with measures to slow the spread of the virus – namely, business closures, mandatory shelter in place, and social distancing – have had economic, social, and psychological effects. Economists can play a key role in helping policymakers and the public understand the unfolding economic effects of the crisis. The gathering of accurate data and timely analysis can inform policymakers about trade-offs and issues arising as countries consider easing lockdown restrictions and move into successive phases of re-opening.
The European Economic Association’s registry of projects related to COVID-19
The European Economic Association (EEA) is taking a lead role in aggregating and organising economic research activities and established a registry of COVID-19-related projects. The original call for projects is here (first put out on 31 March 2020), and the list of currently registered projects, updated every few days, is here.1
The initial call was aimed at research teams involved in gathering and analysing real-time data during the COVID-19 crisis. The focus on real-time data collection was driven by two ideas.
First, it is important to document and understand how prices, earnings, employment, labour supply, savings, consumption, attitudes, and other key economic variables are all being impacted over the course of the crisis. What are the dynamics of these outcomes, and how do existing economic, social, geographical differences interact with the crisis and produce heterogeneous effects? Detailed data can show more than the average and aggregate effects of the crisis and help identify the effects on potentially vulnerable populations.
Second, a potential gain of such a registry is that it will be easier for researchers to find out about similar data-collection exercises being conducted in other settings. This can lead to synergies such as harmonising survey instruments wherever useful or including similar survey modules across countries. The registry highlights the countries and topics that form the evidence base, and it will help delineate a core set of studies and findings, as well as call attention to those areas and topics that are relatively understudied.
Earlier VoxEU columns have discussed the findings from specific real-time data-collection projects including those related to consumer expenditures (Bounie et al. 2020) and for Finnish data (Helsinki Graduate School of Economics Situation Room 2020). Here we provide a wider overview of the work of economists on data collection in the crisis.
Projects received so far
To date, 348 research projects have been registered with the EEA. The majority of these (233, or 67%) involve some aspect of real-time data collection; 61 projects relate to modelling the diffusion of the virus over the course of the pandemic often using real-time data on caseloads or deaths. A further 54 projects were submitted on COVID-19-related research not involving data collection. All these projects are listed at the EEA registry website.
For several of the main areas around which the registry is organised, the EEA plans to produce summary-pieces that may help policymakers and researchers navigate the large number of studies and findings.
Here, we describe the core group of 233 projects involving real-time data collection and provide a snapshot of the work economic researchers have been engaged in over the crisis. Of course, this represents only a small share of such work being conducted.
Regional and country scope of projects
Figure 2 shows the regional scope of real-time data-collection projects in the EEA registry. All continents are covered; 36 projects are engaged in global data collection; and Europe and North America are the areas with the most projects, in line with both the number of COVID-19 cases in those regions and the large number of economists and institutions based on these continents.
Figure 2 Regional scope of real-time-data-collection projects in EFA registry
Figure 3 shows the countries covered in those projects with a focus on one specific country. The US has the most studies (63), followed by China (16), Italy (15), and Germany (8).
Figure 3 Coverage of countries
Figure 4 shows that how the distribution of projects across countries aligns with the current severity of the COVID-19 outbreak – for each country, we graph the share of studies against the global share of cases and deaths from that country (with all the caveats that arise when making such cross country comparisons).
Figure 4 Proportions of registry studies, cases and deaths, by country
Source: Number cases and deaths from the WHO (as of 20 May 2020)
The measured severity across countries is correlated with the high number of studies focussing on the US, Italy, and China. There is a slight under-representation of studies from France, Russia, Spain, and the UK. We would encourage researchers working on real-time data collection in those countries to register their projects.
Areas of study
We classified registered projects into 12 topical areas based on the type of outcomes analysed. Figure 5 shows that studies related to ‘attitudes’ are the single most common group. Many of these involve data collections that elicit information on how the pandemic and the ensuing lockdown and social distancing have affected individual trust, belief in self, risk attitudes, opinions, political bias, economic expectations, and related issues.
Figure 5 Main topic of the registered studies
The second-largest group of studies fit under the category of ‘labour’ – including studies related to workers, jobs, employment, and earnings. Some of this work relates to the ability to work from home and its link to the crisis’s heterogenic effects on labour supply as well as on employment policies.
Figure 6 details the nature of real-time data collection taking place. The top panel shows the type of data being collected, which often involves publicly available data. A quarter of studies are collecting data using online surveys. Among the 20% of projects using data from private firms, popular sources are Google Trends and Safegraph.
Figure 6 Data sources, units of observation and frequency of real-time data collection
The middle panel shows that the majority of studies are collecting individual-level data, while 13% of are collecting information on firm-level outcomes, emphasising how economists see the need to go beyond aggregate effects and to capture heterogeneity and inequality.
The bottom panel shows that most studies either are collecting daily data or involve one-off data collection.
The characteristics of data collection vary by topic of study. For example, Figure 7 shows how the type of data being collected varies by topic. Studies of macroeconomic effects and mobility mostly use publicly available data, while real-time studies of attitudes, families, and education mostly use online surveys.
Figure 7 Data sources by area of study
We encourage researchers to register their projects with the EEA so their work can be included in further updates.
The EEA is now placing these projects into a searchable database, to be hosted at the Economics of COVID-19 Observatory website and bringing together economic research on topics relevant to the COVID-19 crisis. It aims to help the public and policymakers use economic data analysis to answer questions about the current situation.
Many of the registered studies collecting real-time data already have results: working papers/presentations are available for 69 (31%) of the studies, evenly distributed across categories.
The EEA is now preparing short syntheses, each focused on a topic, of its findings. This will help identify common patterns across countries and also suggest where outcomes have diverged across countries and where we need more data and research to advance our understanding.
Finally, the EEA is also exploring the idea of having an EEA-sponsored research conference and the option of having a special COVID-19-related issue of the Journal of the European Economic Association later in 2020 or 2021.