Interpreting data: the COVID-19 deaths in the United States roughly match the population of my mid-sized suburb

Understanding big numbers can be difficult. This is particularly true in a large country like the United States – over 330,000,000 residents – with a variety of contexts. Debates over COVID-19 numbers have been sharp as different approaches appeal to different numbers. To some degree, many potential social problems or public issues face this issue: how to use numbers (and other evidence) to convince people that action needs to be taken.

This week, the number of deaths in the United States due to COVID-19 approached the population of my suburban community of just over 53,000 residents. We are a mid-sized suburb; this is the second largest community in our county, the most populous suburban county in the Chicago region outside of Cook County. The community covers just over 11 square miles. Imagining an entire mid-sized suburb of COVID-19 deaths gives one pause. I had heard the comparison a week or two ago to the deaths matching the size of a good-sized indoor arena; thinking of an entire sizable community helps make sense of the number of deaths across the country.

Of course, there are other numbers to cite. Our community has relatively few cases – less than hundred as of a few days ago. Considering the Chicago suburbs: “If the Chicago suburbs were a state, it would have the 11th-highest COVID-19 death toll in the nation.” The COVID-19 cases and deaths are scattered throughout the United States, with clear hotspots in some places like New York City and fewer cases in other places. And so on.

Perhaps all of this means that we need medical experts alongside data experts in times like these. We need people well-versed in statistics and their implications to help inform the public and policymakers. Numbers are interpreted and used as part of arguments. Having a handle on the broad range of data, the different ways it can be interpreted (including what comparisons are useful to make), connecting the numbers to particular actions and policies, and communicating all of this clearly is a valuable skill set that can serve communities well.

 

 

Comprehending the office and retail space in an edge city

After explaining the concept of an edge city to my American Suburbanization class, a discussion arose about how much space these places really have. When defining the edge city, Joel Garreau had these as two criteria (out of five total): “has five million square feet or more of leasable office space” and “has 600,000 square feet or more of leasable retail space.” This is a lot of space, as much as a smaller big city, but can still be hard to understand.

For example, there is much more commercial and retail space in the exemplar of the edge city: Tysons Corner, Virginia.

Around 2007 Tysons Corner had 25,599,065 square feet (2,378,231.0 m2) of office space, 1,072,874 square feet (99,673.3 m2) of industrial/flex space, 4,054,096 square feet (376,637.8 m2) of retail space, and 2,551,579 square feet (237,049.4 m2) of hotel space. Therefore Tysons Corner has a grand total of 33,278,014 square feet (3,091,628.7 m2) of commercial space.

How do we put this in more manageable terms?

1. Garreau compares this suburban space to the office and retail space in existing cities. The 5 million square feet of office space “is more than downtown Memphis.” While we may have traditionally associated this much office and retail space only with the downtowns of big cities, now concentrations of this space can be found right in the middle of the suburbs. This is unusual because suburbs are often portrayed as bedroom suburbs, places like people live and sleep but have to work elsewhere.

2. Compare this space to large buildings. The Willis (Sears) Tower in Chicago has 4.56 million square feet of space, 3.81 million rentable. So an edge city would have at least slightly more space this notable office building though perhaps it is difficult to visualize this space since it is a skyscraper and each floor seems smaller. An ever bigger building, The Pentagon, has 6.5 million square feet, more than the lower threshold for an edge city. Therefore, Tysons Corner has nearly 4 Pentagons of office space. Comparing this edge city space to shopping malls, Woodfield Mall in Schaumburg, Illinois (an edge city itself) has 2.7 million square feet while the Mall of America has a total of 4.2 million square feet.

3. We could measure edge cities in terms of square miles or acres and then compare to bigger cities. Square miles make some sense: Tysons Corner is 4.9 square miles while Memphis, a city Garreau says has downtown space similar to that of an edge city, is 302.3 square miles (on land). Acres are a little harder to interpret: a common suburban house lot is an eighth of an acre, a square mile has 640 acres (hence the dividing of the American frontier into 160 and 640 acre plots), and an acre has roughly 43,500 square feet. Then, an edge city with 5 million square feet of office space has about 115 acres of office space. Perhaps acres are best left to farmers.

In the end, I think Garreau made the right comparison to demonstrate the office and retail space within an edge city: we have some ideas about the size of downtowns of smaller big cities and the image of this amount of space existing in the suburbs is jarring.

The real America can be found at Wal-Mart

I vividly remember what one professor told us one day in a sociology of religion class in graduate school: “If you want to find real Americans, just go to Walmart.” Several members of the class gasped – could the real America really be at Walmart, that exemplar of crass consumerism, low wages, and the loss of community life in America? This story from NPR makes a similar point:

The Wall Street Journal spotted the phenomenon recently. The headline: “Today’s Special at Wal-Mart: Something Weird.” “Almost any imaginable aspect of American life can and does take place inside Wal-Mart stores, from births to marriages to deaths,” observed the Journal‘s Miguel Bustillo. “Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin once officiated a wedding at the Wal-Mart in her hometown of Wasilla.”…

What is it about Walmart? As a species, we are fascinated by the place. The Web is awash with sites that scrutinize the Arkansas-based retailer’s every move. Walmart Watch, funded by the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, says its mission is to challenge the multibillion-dollar retail chain “to more fully embrace its corporate responsibilities.” The now-infamous and snarky People of Walmart posts photos of shoppers. Hel-Mart offers anti-Walmart merchandise, such as T-shirts that say, “Resistance Is Futile.” Videos of people praising, mocking, pranking, walking around, dancing in Walmart are continuously posted on YouTube…

Officially, Walmart explains the apparent zaniness this way: “Over the years, Walmart has become a microcosm of American life,” says company spokesman Lorenzo Lopez. “With stores serving millions of customers in communities nationwide, it’s not uncommon for us to see our share of what happens every day in cities and towns all across the country.”…

* Of the 3,822 Walmart stores, 2,939 are Supercenters, which means they are open 24 hours a day. So in virtually every county, 500 people work at Walmart, and there is a Walmart open every hour of every day, and every one of those Walmarts is being visited by 37,000 people a week — that’s 220 people an hour, in every Walmart, in virtually every county in the whole country, every hour of the day.

So how come there are not more sociologists doing studies at or about Walmart? I suspect many do not like the place – even though some may even shop at Target and other big box stores. But just because sociologists might disagree with the practices of Walmart does not mean that it shouldn’t be the focus of much research.

This story also illustrates something Joel Best likes to talk about: the scale of numbers. Some of the statistics about Walmart from the article include half of American adults visit Walmart each week covering 70 million hours and the company has 1.5 million employees. This is hard to visualize because these are big numbers. We know what a couple of hundred people looks like but to understand 1.5 million, we might need to make some comparisons such as this is about the population of the City of Philadelphia or is around the same size as the metro area of Nashville or Milwaukee. Another way to understand these big numbers is to break it down into how often something happens per hour or minute or second. In this article, this translates to “that’s 220 people an hour, in every Walmart, in virtually every county in the whole country, every hour of the day.” We know what roughly 220 people looks like so we can then grasp a little better the enormity of the figures.

A website to help understand scales

The BBC has put together a cool website that maps certain physical features, manmade features, or events onto other maps to provide a sense of scale.

Once we get to large numbers, many of us are not very good with visualizing how large something is. Take, for example, the national debt – it is nearly beyond comprehension. Or the distance between Earth and the sun. Or the population of China. We tend to think in smaller units so larger numbers tend to cause problems. People who operate in such units try to break it down into more manageable sizes: this is the average debt per US citizen, that distance would equal X number of trips from the Earth to the moon, that population would be roughly 37 times the population of California.