The MMDA and news reports say that 6 million people attended Pope Francis’ open-air mass in Luneta on 18 January 2014 . If one was to ask the MMDA or the media how they came up with that figure – they would refer to the 1995 Papal mass of Pope John Paul II in 1995, which is supposed to have been attended by 4 million people, and say that the recent mass was bigger than that. While this may indeed be the case (that the recent papal mass was bigger than the 1995 mass), the question is still: how did the officials then come up with the figure of 4 million for the 1995 papal mass in the first place?
It is extremely difficult to estimate crowd sizes simply by looking at a picture. After all, we couldn’t count the people one by one.
I had learned that a more objective way to estimate crowd sizes is first to establish the maximum capacity of a place, and then to estimate what percentage of the maximum is filled. If we take the example of an auditorium (where everyone is seated), we simply count the seats (number of seats across x number of rows) to get the maximum amount, and then estimate how full it is.
For open-air crowds, things are a bit more complicated; after all, there are no seats to count. Maximum capacity can still be established by measuring the dimensions of the place, and then assuming a maximum crowd density ( 4 to 5 people per square meter is probably an upper limit). Then, it is a matter of estimating what percentage of that is occupied.
Now, let us go to the Pope’s mass in Luneta. The area of the whole Luneta – from the Quirino granstand up to Taft (excluding the streets) is 16.24 hectares. I got this figure from the text of Proclamation 234 by President Magsaysay creating Rizal Park. Presidential Proclamation Number 234 (of 1955) . A hectare has 10,000 square meters; thus the total for Rizal park will be 162,400 square meters (more or less). If we assume 5 persons/square meter to be the maximum, we come up with 813,000 people as the maximum capacity of Luneta.
Because of sensible crowd-control considerations, the area of Luneta was divided into sections, with spaces in between, so that emergency services etc can easily evacuate people if necessary, and it would be easier to go into and out of the area. But this decreases the area with people. And there are other areas with structures, trees, or enclosed e.g. the ‘gardens’ which would be less full.
The overflow to other areas outside Luneta, e.g. the sides of adjacent streets, would be barely enough to make the crowd reach 1 million. Thus, the maximum capacity of Luneta (plus overflow) would be a little less than one million. And to be generous, let us say that Luneta was filled to the maximum, and thus that 1 million people did attend the papal mass.
When I stated this point in Facebook, I got a lot of angry reactions – a lot of them pointing out that I was being disrespectful of Pope Francis. I found this extremely strange, and quite unfair.
In the first place, I deeply respect and admire Pope Francis; I feel that he is doing a lot of things that will make Catholicism more attuned with the 21st Century. In the second place, I do not see how someone who makes an objective count of the crowd be expressing disrespect. The only ones I may be ‘disrespectful’ to would be the MMDA and the media, who were the ones to declare the wrong 6 million estimate. Even then, pointing out their factual mistakes is not a sign of disrespect to them.
The 6 million figure should have raised eyebrows of right-thinking people in Manila. It would mean that one in two Metro Manila residents were there – was that true of their circle of friends? of their neighborhood? A million people is a lot of people, and 6 million is six times more than one million.
In the same light, people should also question the 4 to 5 estimated participation in the Black Nazarene procession. Did more than 1/3 of all Metro Manila residents attend it? Did they notice that about 1/3 of their neighborhoods attended?
Filipinos should strive to be more accurate in estimating crowd numbers. Proclaming grossly exaggerated numbers actually detract from the very impressive fact that a million people did attend the papal mass. A million people is an extremely impressive figure in itself, there is no need to inflate it.