Muito obrigado

I have many people to thank for our wonderful four months here in Lisbon.

Thanks to the Fulbright Portugal Commission in general and in particular to directora Otília Macedo Reis; Paula Lemos, who arranged all my appearances around Lisbon and Portugal; and Carla Silva, who helped me navigate everything from opening a bank account to buying train tickets. I especially appreciate the opportunity they gave me to address the prestigious Fulbright Brainstorms Conference at the Gulbenkian Institute.

Thanks to my students at the Universidade Nova de Lisboa for their interest and enthusiasm, and for their willingness to be taught a strange subject in English by an American who is unable to speak more than a few words of Portuguese. I promise to them that one day I will successfully pronounce “freguesia”.

Thanks to Dean João Sáàgua and the faculty of Nova’s school of communication for inviting me to teach this semester and making me feel welcome. I was honored by their invitation to give the semester opening address to the new journalism students at Nova.

Thanks most especially to Prof. Antonio Granado, who turned his class over to me and who worked closely with me this semester. His enthusiasm for crowd-counting (see this and this was particularly helpful! My only regret is that we never made it to a Benfica game where I could wear my Benfica hat.

Thanks to the professors at other schools around Lisbon and Portugal who invited me to talk to their students and colleagues: Helder Bastos at the University of Porto; Anabela Sousa Lopes at Lisbon Polytechnic; Paula Cordeiro at the Technical University of Lisbon; Rita Figueiras at the Catholic University of Lisbon; Luis Bonixe at the Polytechnic Institute of Portalegre; and Joao Figueira at the University of Coimbra. I appreciated their help and hospitality, and the evident interest of their students.

Thanks to the staff of the United State Embassy of Lisbon. I very much enjoyed the hospitality of Ambassador Allan Katz and Nancy Cohn, his gracious wife. I appreciated the attention and interest I got from press officers Abby Dressell and MaryAnn McKay. And I really enjoyed my visit to the Azores, hosted by Gavin Sundwall, the American consul there. As a journalist and voter, I’m often critical of my government. But as an American citizen, I’m grateful that my tax dollars are being spent very well by members of the diplomatic corps such as these.

Thanks to the staff of Traveling to Lisbon, the apartment agency through which we rented the amazing apartment in which we lived. They handled cheerfully the occasional problems, right down to calling taxis for us when needed.

Thanks in general to the people of Portugal for their hospitality and patience with this language-crippled American. And thanks to the wonderful local residents that we got to know, like Maria down the escandinhas, or Asim and Mohammad and Ali at “Taste of Punjab” farther down the escandinhas.

Thanks to Dean Chris Callahan and my colleagues at the Cronkite School for their support of my selection to the Fulbright program. And thanks to Emeritus Prof. Phil Meyer, the godfather of precision journalism, and Knight Chair Rosental Alves, who first exposed me to Portuguese in Brazil, for their recommendations of my application to be a Fulbright scholar.

Finally, I gratefully thank my wonderful wife, Ellyn, for her willingness to go with me on adventures like this one. Her enthusiasm for everything from making best friends with people of all cultures to her happy eagerness to try whatever strange food is on the menu is what made this trip so special. Thanks to her, we will be back in Lisbon one day soon.

Counting heads

It’s not all porto and pastéis de nata for me here in Portugal. I spent yesterday doing journalism.

I was contacted a couple of days earlier by Curt Westergard, whose Airphotoslive.com company uses cameras on tethered balloons to produce high-resolution aerial photos. He had been hired by CBS News to get images of the crowd that gathered Saturday for the Glenn Beck “Restoring Honor” Tea Party rally at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. CBS also wanted a credible estimate of the size of the crowd. That’s where I came in.

I started doing crowd estimates back in my Miami Herald days, for local events such as a visit by Pope John Paul II or the annual Calle Ocho street festival. After the 2008 presidential election, I wrote a piece about crowd counting for MSNBC.com, and that led to news media requests for an estimate of the crowd for President Obama’s inauguration. I used a satellite image taken over the National Mall on January 20, 2009, to estimate the crowd there at about 800,000.

Crowd counting, particularly of political events, always is controversial. 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.

Airphotoslive.com shot for CBS News

Naturally, I expected more of the same about my Beck rally estimate. To calculate it, I used Airphotoslive.com’s very striking images (MUCH larger than the thumbnail posted here) to make density estimates across different zones of the crowd; a variety of ground-level images from news photographers and attendees who posted their photos on Flickr; and Google Earth to measure the square footage of the different zones. Yes, I included the crowd areas under the trees; the full-size Airphotolive images were detailed enough to discern the edges of the crowd even there.

My estimate is that about 80,000 people were at the rally. Ryan Shuler, an Airphotoslive image analyst, used the same images and a different grid-density method to produce an estimate of 87,000. Considering the error margins around our separately-calculated estimates, they are statistically identical. CBS went with the 87,000 figure, which I certainly can accept.

Now the fun begins in the blogosphere. NBC News, the New York Times, and other large media outlets that didn’t attempt a scientific estimate uncritically accepted Beck’s claim of “300,000 to 500,000”. (At least Rep. Michelle Bachmann’s laughable claim of 1 million isn’t being treated seriously.)

The CBS News estimate immediately was vilified by conservative bloggers, and often rabidly-virulent comments from readers are being posted on news stories that mention the CBS estimate. I won’t post more links, but you can find plenty by Googling “beck rally attendance” and similar search terms.

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.

I expect that kind of behavior from partisans on both sides. I am disappointed, though, by the many responsible news organizations that failed to produce their own independent estimates and instead reported only ungrounded hype. Their readers and viewers deserve better journalism than that.

[DOIG afternote: I welcome reasoned comment and questions. Don’t bother sending ideological rants from any direction; I trash those. Also, it may take a while for your comment to be read and approved. I’m in Portugal five hours ahead of DC, also the flood of hits on the site has slowed it way down.]

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