If you stop and think about it, the answer’s somewhat obvious. Because size matters and smaller crowds can lend the perception that an event like last weekend’s New Age gang bang WaterFire on the Plaza is somehow less important or significant than its organizers would like it to be thought of.
Here’s how Popular Mechanics story “The Curious Science of Counting a Crowd” put it:
“Crowd-size estimation is tough for people who want to do it right. But when turnout implies clout, then politicians and event organizers have plenty of motivation to exaggerate the head count. Through careful research, though, it is possible to make better crowd-size estimates that aren’t the result of political bias.”
Enter local businessman Gary Evert, who played out a hunch 10 years back that the Plaza Lighting Ceremony attendance figures of 300,000 people being used by sponsor KCPL were grossly exaggerated.
So Evert teamed with UMKC mathematics and statistics professor Yong Zeng and used Jacob’s Method of crowd counting to debunk KCPL’s phoneyed up “estimates.”
After being confronted by a count of 31,603 attendees, the Plaza admitted it never had actually counted the crowd and mum’s been the official word on Plaza crowd sizes since.
That is until Karen Holland brought WaterFire to KC seven years ago.
Determined to put WaterFire on the map, Holland exaggerated its attendance from the start.
In am October 2007 letter to the editor at the Kansas City Star Holland characterized WaterFire’s inaugural event as having drawn “tens of thousands.” And for several years since, she’s conned the newspaper of record into “reporting” attendance figures in the range of 30,000 to 35,000 people.
In other words, right up there with the vaunted Plaza Lights.
“I don’t know, there are a lot of people here, but it’s nothing like the Plaza lights,” Evert said on his arrival at the event that evening.
Following the basic tenets of Jacobs Method – dividing the area occupied by the crowd into sections, determining a reasonable average number of people for each section, then adding them up – Evert surveyed the grounds ahead of time and determined a reasonable density.
“Think of a crowd entering a Chiefs game and that density is one person per five square feet shoulder to shoulder,” Evert said prior to the event. “Given those totally unrealistic assumptions, the maximum number of people in attendance at WaterFire would be 20,425.
“Now assume that the obstructions take up 20% of the overall available space, the shoulder to shoulder crowd – again, totally unrealistically – would be 16,340. Based on a YouTube video of a past WaterFire, the number of people in the 10,000 square feet in the most Northwest section was fewer that 100. So my initial assumption is that there are no more than 12,000 people in attendance and I expect that number to be 50% overstated.”
And while exaggerating WaterFire’s crowd size may make Holland feel important (and make it easier to attract sponsors and donations), to Evert’s thinking the event really doesn’t need the phony hype and it could even backfire on Holland.
“I mean, it’s lovely. It’s great. I can see why people like it, but I’m sorry,” Evert said. “There’s maybe 5,500 people here tops.”
“If the threat of large crowds at Kansas City’s elegantly produced WaterFire are keeping you away, by all means come down and check it out. There’s plenty of room. Just show up and enjoy yourselves. There were substantially fewer than 5,000 people in the immediate area and an abundance of seating on the banks of Brush Creek and standing room on the street…I mean, some people probably came and left, but there were never at any one time as many as 5,000 people there.”
Evert’s bottom line:
“It wouldn’t be physically possible for more than 10,000 people to witness that event at the same time,” he says. “The 30,000 to 35,000 number was just somebody’s naive estimate in my opinion, because obviously, they didn’t make any effort to substantiate that. I would say that from the reporting, without a doubt, this is the first time there was an effort to analyze the crowds at WaterFire. But it’s a great event, go check it out.”