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Go Cubs Go! Go Figure Rally Attendance and the Lost Art of Estimation

by Doug Laney  |  November 6, 2016  |  Submit a Comment

The turnout for the Chicago Cubs rally this past Friday following its World Series championship that ended a 107 year drought, was like nothing the city had ever seen. (Well not really, but I’ll get to that later.) Throngs of fans crowded Wrigleyville as the Cub caravan left the ballpark. Cars stopped along Lake Shore Drive while people waved and cheered, office workers and others converged on Michigan Avenue, hung out of windows and off bridges, and a mass of of people rushed to congregate for the celebration in Grant Park.

Chicago’s Office of Emergency Management spokesperson said the crowd had been estimated at five million people.

Wait. What??? FIVE MILLION?

Let’s hold onto our championship baseball caps and sanity check this. Five million people would mean:

  • One out of every 64 people in the entire United States was there?
  • The size of the crowd was double the population of Chicago itself?
  • One out of every two people from the Chicago metropolitan area attended — from the Lake Michigan shores of northern Indiana to the southern border of Wisconsin, and west to the outskirts of Dekalb?

Hardly. Yet the mindless media and their snoozing statisticians, including ABC, CBS, NBC and FOX, along with ESPN and Sports Illustrated, were all too happy to parrot this figure without a second thought. It seems among major media, only the Wall Street Journal properly tempered the number by an order of magnitude.

ariel-photo

Estimating crowd size from photographs involves kindergarten counting and 4th-grade math. I enlarged several photos of Grant Park and manually counted heads per square inch in the most dense parts of the photos, excluding gaps in the crowd, then simply multiplied this by the number of square inches. From these photos, at most 40,000 people congregated in Grant Park. Yes there were tens of thousands more on Michigan Avenue, and tens of thousands more along the route. But it simply is not possible the gathering was anywhere near twice Chicago’s entire population, nor that half of the entire Chicago metro area populace attended.

Another way to look at it: Crowd control experts say standing crowds take up about 4.5 square feet per person. (Mosh pits are about 2-3 square feet per head.) So a crowd of 5,000,000 people packed standing together would take up an entire square mile. Grant Park’s Lower Hutchinson Field pictured above is about 1/40th of a square mile (1000 x 600 ft). Even completely packed, which it wasn’t, the field would hold 125,000 people max. Double that for everyone along the route and it’s still generously a quarter million people.

And even if business in Chicago came to a standstill (which it didn’t) and every single person working downtown deserted their desk for the celebration, that would total only 500,000 people.

Yet Fox News touted the 5 million person figure as being the “seventh largest gathering in human history,” and the largest ever in the US, behind:

  1. Kumbh Mela pilgrimage, India, 2013 – 30 million
  2. Arbaeen festival, Iraq, 2014 – 17 million
  3. Funeral of CN Annadurai, India, 1969 – 15 million
  4. Funeral of Ayatollah Khomeini, Iran, 1989 – 10 million
  5. Papal gathering in the Philippines, 2015 – 6 million
  6. World Youth Day, 1995 – 5 million

Of course no one knows how accurate these figures are either.

The point is, it’s not difficult to estimate most things, even spontaneous crowd sizes, using various rational methods. Only the cellular providers along with Snapchat and Facebook would get an accurate tally by crowdsourcing crowd size using phone activity. (Although I’m sure my son’s phone wasn’t the only one that fell and got trampled.)

No doubt is was a tremendous celebration–a century of pent-up jubilation for our beloved Cubbies. But it’s unconscionable that agencies expected to know such things about crowd control can issue guesstimates which are off by orders of magnitude. How could they fail to use basic estimation techniques that any child should know?

As for Chicago’s largest gathering, the World’s Fair and Columbian Exposition record is still safe. According to ticket receipts, 27 million people attended the 1893 World’s Fair, with 751,026 people attending on October 9th. One out of every 50 people on the planet at the time attended the World’s Fair, making it percentage-wise the largest gathering for any event in recorded history. But hey-hey, if the Cubs take another 108 years to win it all, the 2124 World Series celebration might just eclipse the 1893 World’s Fair!

Follow me on Twitter @Doug_Laney #infonomics, or find me in the Wrigley Field bleachers next summer. 

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Tags: analytics  baseball  chicago  chicago-cubs  crowd  cubs  estimation  rally  world-series  worlds-fair  

Doug Laney
VP and Distinguished Analyst, Chief Data Officer Research
10 years at Gartner
30 years in IT industry

Doug Laney is a research vice president and distinguished analyst with Gartner. He advises clients on data and analytics strategy, information innovation, and infonomics (measuring, managing and monetizing information as an actual corporate asset). Follow Doug on Twitter @Doug_Laney...Read Full Bio




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