How Are Crowd Sizes Determined?

SCIENCE

Key geographic concepts, like density, GIS, and topography, are crucial to accurately evaluating how many people are in a crowd. (The Atlantic)

Take a look at a satellite photo of the biggest inauguration crowd in history: the very cold first inauguration of President Barack Obama in 2009.

Teachers, scroll down for a quick list of key resources.

This satellite image of the National Mall was captured on January 20, 2009—the first inauguration of President Barack Obama. The image shows the monuments and museums, as well as the masses of people between the Capitol (to the right) and the Lincoln Memorial (to the left). Photograph courtesy GeoEye (DigitalGlobe)

This satellite image of the National Mall was captured on January 20, 2009—the first inauguration of President Barack Obama. The image shows the monuments and museums, as well as the masses of people between the Capitol (to the right) and the Lincoln Memorial (to the left).
Photograph courtesy GeoEye (DigitalGlobe)

Discussion Questions

  • What are some of the chief tools modern geographers, demographers, and data journalists use for estimating crowd size at a non-ticketed event?
    • aerial photographs taken by helicopters or satellites.
    • weather balloons. “Tethered aerostats” are a specific type of weather balloon permanently tied (tethered) to the ground and take images at a consistent altitude. Tethered aerostats are usually flown from buildings around the event at about 400 to 800 feet (120 to 240 meters) overhead.
      • A remote-controlled, spherical panoramic camera affixed to the balloons can capture shots of the crowd from every direction, all at once.
      • A tethered aerostat is superior to a satellite for several reasons, but one of the most important is that it always takes photos below the cloud level.”
      • Tethered aerostats are also used to evaluate the size of oil spills and to provide potential views from skyscrapers before they are built.
    • 3D maps. These maps are prepared ahead of time, and often overlaid with historical photos of similar events. This map provides a prediction of how crowds may congregate.
    • Mechanical Turk. Amazon Mechanical Turk is a crowdsourcing platform that allows individuals or businesses to cheaply and easily access simple “human intelligence tasks” such as counting the number of people in a photograph or video.
    • inferences. Indirect evidence of crowd size is important. These inferences may include self-reports and anecdotal data about who went and the use of transportation in the area. (Public transportation and private parking are usually both ticketed. Tickets provide more easily accessed numbers than attendance at the non-ticketed event itself.)

 

 

  • How do crowd scientists work “on the ground” to evaluate crowd size?
    • Jacobs’s method. Jacobs’s method involves dividing the area occupied by a crowd into sections, usually 100-by-100 feet or 500-by-500 feet. Then, scientists estimate the average number of people in each section, based on algorithms for low-density (one person per 10 square feet, when crowds might have an arms-length between them) and high-density (one person per 4.5 square feet, when they’re shoulder-to-shoulder), and “mosh-pit density” (one person per 2.5 square feet). Finally, these numbers are multiplied by the number of sections occupied.
    • physical interaction. Teams walk around the event, counting people in the shade—under awnings, beneath trees, under umbrellas. On-the-ground research is also a great way to estimate the number of children present.
    • crowd inspection points. Evaluators set up one or two fixed counting stations near the focal points of an event, and tally the number of people who pass through one or both.

 

 

  • How does topography influence crowd density maps and estimates?
    • The appearance of crowds can vary based on an area’s hills and valleys, no matter how small. “‘If you have people surrounding the Washington Monument—which is on a moderately steep hill—and you look out at a crowd, you’re going to see more people because they’re tilted toward you,’ says a leading crowd scientist. A computer model will correct for those kinds of inaccuracies.”

 

  • Why does crowd size matter?
    • In the case of political events, it matters to organizers and participants. In the case of free concerts, it matters to artists and promoters. In both cases, crowd science allows organizers to estimate the number of people their events reached, and how those people accessed the event. (For instance, did attendees crowd the stage or gather around the jumbotrons? This may help in planning for security or technology at future events.)
    • Estimating crowd size has a crucial role in security. “If a fire, terrorist attack, stage collapse or other calamity happened at a large event, [one crowd scientist] figures that within 20 minutes he could provide first-responders with the location of the threat and rough estimates of the number of people who might need treatment.”

 

TEACHERS TOOLKIT

The Atlantic: How Will We Know Trump’s Inaugural Crowd Size?

Popular Mechanics: The Curious Science of Counting a Crowd

LiveScience: How Is Crowd Size Estimated?

New York Times: Crowd Scientists Say Women’s March in Washington Had 3 Times More People Than Trump’s Inauguration

Nat Geo: 2009 U.S. Presidential Inauguration photo

4 responses to “How Are Crowd Sizes Determined?

  1. Pingback: 11 Things We Learned This Week | Nat Geo Education Blog·

  2. Pingback: #Crowd sizes – zaynaresto·

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