Yesterday, one of the Jewish world’s most influential Rabbis passed away. While Ovadia Yosef was a polarizing figure due to his works and remarks, he did have a big following here in Israel.
According to Israeli police reports, up to 800,000 people were at the funeral.
Or were there?
An Israeli high-tech start up named Trendit claims the number of people actually attending the funeral was 273,000, just 34% of the police figure.
Trendit gathers real time cellular phone data in a predefined area, and by cross-referencing the raw data with demographic and statistical data, is able to generate what it calls, Population Analytics. At the core is the simple notion that people carry their cellular phones with them all the time, therefore enabling the mapping of population movement.
Trendit’s research has already featured in the press during the “social protests” two years ago.
So today, less than 24 hours after the funeral, Trendit published on LinkedIn and Twitter their research on the number of people at Yosef’s funeral. By their count, there were “only” 273,000 people, a figure which seems more plausible when taking into account Israel’s population.
As of March, Israel’s population stands at 8,012,000, with roughly 75%, or 6 million of them Jewish. Given that the vast majority of funeral goers were men, that means that roughly 25% of Jewish males attended the funeral, or 1 in 4!
Trendit’s Data shows a different case:
Further exploration of the data shows the participants’ origins:
This data show that there’s a discrepancy of half a million people between the Israeli Police and Trendit. While there’s no reason to doubt the police figures, estimated by the number of buses and crude head count, it might be an overestimation, as has already happened with big rallies in Israel. Then again, Trendit’s data might be an underestimation due to a number of reasons:
First, Trendit uses mathematics and computer algorithms to extrapulate the data, and is only accurate to a certain degree.
Furthermore, the Haredi movement are a difficult demography to monitor due to different norms, including a ban, to a certain extent, on mobile phones. Though I’m sure Trendit know their demographics, it is worth remembering that unlike Tel-Aviv social justice protests, not everyone has the most up-to-date iPhone or Android mobile phone.
And then there’s the inherent problem of scale. Just what is a funeral procession? Is it only the people in a certain radius from the grave? Does it include all the people along the path of the procession? What about the people stuck in traffic that, although partaking in the funeral, couldn’t physically make it close enough in time?
The answer is, I don’t know. Trendit allows customers to define an area for monitoring, which is usually fixed around a focal point. Funerals move through space, and are highly irregular. Then there’s the issue of cell tower migration and system overload, which might also interfere with the data collection.
All in all, Trendit have a novel system that is definitely proving it’s worth in giving a more scientific approach to crowd assessment. Media estimates are notoriously unreliable at times, and one needn’t look further than our neighbour to the south. Between the probable overestimation of 800 thousand, and the possible underestimation of 273 thousand, Yosef’s funeral saw one of the biggest crowds ever. It is worthwhile to remember that such figures can, and are, being used for politicizing such events, in a positive and negative way.