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CBS explains the Beck "87,000" figure


As you know, Glenn Beck has been on one giant rip over crowd estimates of the Restoring Honor rally this past weekend, and the one that seemed to be grate deepest and longest was this number by CBS News: 87,000.

  Seems like a big number to me - I mean, that's how many people go to a Springsteen concert, although they pay a lot of money to go, and probably even more would go if they could fit more in the venue. So maybe the comparison here is inelegant.

 But I digress. CBS explains this number in a recent news story...This is from Brian Montopoli's CBS blog; Brian reports on the news media and on CBS as well - and he's a solid, responsible journalist. 

 The reference below to one "Westergard" is Curt Westergard, who is president of AirPhotosLive, which made the estimate for CBS. "Doig" is Steven Doig, of the U. of Arizona, who helped AirPhotosLive. 

I posted a big chunk of his post below because the subject is interesting.

  But the big question many people did turn up over the weekend? Does this post satisfy the question? Or beg a bunch of others?

The balloon, Westergard said, gave the company the capacity to move up and down,
allowing it to photograph people who were standing beneath trees in addition to taking photos from high above.

"We took a lot of shots under the trees and higher up by just changing the balloon altitude," he said. "So what might have been a negative with an airplane and certainly a negative with a satellite was a very strong position with a balloon."Though there was restricted airspace on the south side of the reflecting pool, airspace was not restricted where the crowd was gathered, allowing the company to position the balloon in "the very center of the crowd - dead in the middle of it," Westergard said.

The photos were taken at noon, which Beck's representatives suggested would be the peak of the event, which ran from 10 AM to slightly after 1 PM. Taking the pictures then meant counting both those who were late to the event because of subway or traffic delays and those who left early to avoid the crowds afterward.

The company generated its own estimate and asked Doig to separately one on his own. Though Doig and employ slightly different methodologies, both use a method that involves laying grids over the high-resolution images and counting the density per unit of each grid cell. Westergard provided the image below to help show how the estimates are made. It's of a Tea Party Express event on April 15th that the company calculated attracted 4,436 people.

Doig estimated that there were 80,000 people at the "Restoring Honor" rally, while estimated that there were 87,000 people, a statistically insignificant different since the margin of error was 9,000. CBS News elected to use the higher estimate.

In a blog post, Doig, writing from Portugal, noted that he estimated the crowd at Mr. Obama's inauguration at roughly 800,000 - a number critics assailed as too low."Crowd counting, particularly of political events, always is controversial," he wrote. "The organizers of the event inevitably hype their crowd estimate -- often grossly -- to demonstrate the popularity of their cause, and opponents inevitably underestimate to fit their own agenda. Because of the wild pre-inauguration predictions of how many would attend in person -- up to 5 million! -- my reality-based estimate was ignored by many left-wing commentators and embraced by those on the right."

He added: "The frothing underscores the problem with hyped predictions of crowd size. Organizers and supporters are forced to insist loudly that the actual crowd met or exceeded their expectations, for fear that the realistic estimate will be painted as a disappointment. The time-honored way to dismiss scientific estimates that don't reflect the pre-event hype is to claim political bias on the part of those doing the estimate. I am amused to see that those who embraced my Obama inauguration estimate as soberly realistic are now attacking the Beck rally estimate, produced using exactly the same methods, as deliberately biased."On his Fox News show, Beck used an Associated Press photo taken from the Washington Monument to support his claim that there were at least 500,000 people at the event.

He said that, looking at the photo, it was obvious that a nearly mile-long area was nearly completely filled with people, evidence that the CBS News-commissioned estimate was far too low.

But Westergard said it's a mistake to try to count crowds that way, and noted, as you can see in the video above, that people bunched in front of jumbo-trons and did not tightly fill out the entire area.

"You really have to have a position overhead to count it well, and if you use a very oblique angle from the top of the Washington Monument, the sparse areas - and there were many because of people with blankets and chairs - tend to look more dense because you're looking at it from the edge," he said. "We instead are looking at it from above. And that perspective is essential. Anything less than that is sort of like guessing how many people are in a line by just looking at them through a doorway, for example."

Westergard, who said he has received hundreds of hate mails and angry phone calls over the estimate of the Beck rally, also pointed to this link showing roughly 400 photos the company took at the rally, arranged spatially. Many of these photos were used in generating the two estimates.


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