University of South Florida


Business analysts collecting internet search data to track changes to Tampa Bay’s economy in light of COVID-19

A photograph of downtown Tampa at night

Analysts at the University of South Florida are closely monitoring the economic implications of COVID-19. The Center for Analytics and Creativity in the Muma College of Business is collaborating with the Tampa Bay Partnership to provide real-time data for its State of the Region: COVID-19 Community Report. USF researchers will track and analyze search trends that provide insight into the region’s response to the coronavirus and how it compares to other regions and states.

The first USF report focuses on internet searches made between March 1-April 15, 2020. Researchers looked at five key areas:  

  • COVID-19 disease concerns
  • Employment-related issues
  • Need for food and essential supplies
  • Travel and hospitality industry demand
  • Impact on retail commerce

“Real-time data from Google provides a useful take on what’s happening in our economy in these challenging times. By identifying many distinct categories, we are able to tell a broader story as it plays out in real time,” said Balaji Padmanabhan, director of the Center for Analytics and Creativity and professor in the Department of Information Systems and Decision Sciences. “Of interest to the group here are not these ‘snapshot findings’ alone, but whether these numbers carry some sort of meaning when things clearly start ticking up for our region.”

Disease Concerns:

COVID-19 concerns

COVID-19 Concerns

The report found that concern about the virus ranked highest in West Palm Beach-Ft. Pierce, followed by Miami-Ft. Lauderdale, Gainesville, Orlando-Daytona Beach-Melbourne and Tampa. Tampa Bay has shown a more gradual increase in cases than most densely populated regions.


Searches for unemployment benefits have steadily been growing since mid-March and will likely run parallel to the economic downturn. Interest in online jobs started before the issuance of stay-at-home orders. That trend continues as more people find themselves out of work.

Need for Food and Essential Supplies:

Search for food banks

Search for food banks

The search for food banks continues to spike, with the most inquires recorded in Fort Myers, which also has tallied some of the highest unemployment-related searches. The frenzied hunt for toilet paper is starting to taper off and is now at a six-week low, signaling retailers are starting to restock shelves.

Travel and Hospitality Industry Demand:

Restaurant demand in Downtown Tampa

Restaurant demand in downtown Tampa

Analysts looked at searches for restaurants in downtown Tampa over the last year. Data shows a sharp drop to an all-time low near zero on March 15, indicating that’s when people stopped actively dining out. However, questions about take-out options have become more popular than ever before.

“As the phased recovery process starts, this will give us some insights into when customers actually start doing things, such as going out to eat in the popular downtown hotspots,” Padmanabhan said. “Tracking searches for ‘things to do in Florida’ will also signal economic improvements, as that inquiry is also near zero.”

Retail Commerce:

Data shows people are buying items online that they wouldn’t have in the past, such as Vitamin C, immunity boosters and other health-related purchases. Exercise equipment has also increased to levels not typically seen this time of year. Experts predict since people are not shopping at traditional retailers, discount stores will likely become stronger after the recovery.

“These real-time insights, when combined with other public health and economic data, can paint a clearer picture of our community’s response to the crisis,” said Rick Homans, president and CEO of the Tampa Bay Partnership. “When we have that knowledge, we’re able to make more informed decisions about where to focus our time and resources to recover as quickly as possible.”

The State of the Region: COVID-19 Community Report will reflect changes in search trends in a biweekly email delivered by the Tampa Bay Partnership. In addition to the USF Muma College of Business, collaborators include the Community Foundation of Tampa Bay and United Way Suncoast. USF has a long-standing relationship with the Tampa Bay Partnership and produces a comprehensive e-insight report for the annual State of the Region conference.

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