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“Now we have a a scientific basis to estimate large crowd sizes” With Dr. T. Edwin Chow

The controversy around rally attendance often leaves the public with “a view of the truth colored by the beliefs of the people making the estimates”. Hence, there is a lack of objective and independent crowd estimation, discrediting many social movements around the world where civilians express their opinions on various important issues through peaceful protests. […]

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The controversy around rally attendance often leaves the public with “a view of the truth colored by the beliefs of the people making the estimates”. Hence, there is a lack of objective and independent crowd estimation, discrediting many social movements around the world where civilians express their opinions on various important issues through peaceful protests. In the context of rally count, my research aims to minimize the controversies within an independent count that is closer to the “truth” and to facilitate a more meaningful dialogue among stakeholders. As humans are often the focus of many pressing issues, such as the evolving coronavirus and global climate change, simulating their spatial behaviors (such as migration) can be helpful in understanding human dynamics in spatial epidemiology, public health, disaster response, special event management, urban planning and so on.


As a part of our series about cutting edge technological breakthroughs. I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. T. Edwin Chow is an associate professor in the Department of Geography at Texas State University. His research interests focus on geocomputation and human dynamics. He has published dozens of empirical and theoretical articles in peer-reviewed journals, book chapters and moderated conference proceedings. Edwin received contracts/grant funding from National Science Foundation (NSF), American Association of Geographers (AAG), and Census Bureau. His recent projects investigate the potential of big data, including web demographics and social media, to unearth spatial patterns of human movement in dynamic events, e.g. disaster response, protests, etc.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Mygenuine interest in geography can be attributed to the colorful pictures of the amazing places shown in National Geographic magazines that my uncle subscribed to during my childhood. I never envisioned myself becoming a geography teacher one day. In fact, I never thought that I would ever become a teacher being that I grew up (i.e. suffered) in a teacher’s family — my parents and my grandfather were all teachers. However, my interest in geographic research drove me to pursue a career in academia and thank God that it opened up my horizon to teach and conduct research. To leave myself some options to work in the “real world” I chose Geographic Information Science (GIScience), the subfield in geography that uses geospatial technologies to better understand where, when, what, how and why things are located and with each other (plus who if human is of interest).

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

I once helped out a friend in Hong Kong and stood in as a substitute teacher for the second grade. As a veteran teacher, I thought this was going to be a walk in the park. During the first class of the day, one student raised their hand and asked, “Can I use the restroom?” I said “yes” without much thought. Yet, soon after that student left, about 35 other little hands were raised and asked me the same question. Due to fairness, I couldn’t say no. Lesson learned — pedagogy is important and teaching at the elementary school level is not a good match for me.

Can you tell us about the “Bleeding edge” technological breakthroughs that you are working on? How do you think that will help people?

Most recently, I’ve been working on geocomputation and big data analytics to model human dynamics. This rally project involves ongoing collaborative work to 1) process, analyze and resolve uncertainties of big data (i.e. crowdsourced trajectories, etc.) and the use of artificial intelligence to 2) extract protester count at specific locations at rallies in order to better calibrate the rally model. This research provides a scientific basis to estimate the crowd size at these events and better serve the public by quantifying the attendance independent of political bias. Additionally, it helps scientists better understand crowd behaviors related to scientific applications — such as evacuation simulations during and after an emergency event to better manage emergency responses, evacuation plans, search and rescue missions and resource allocation.

How do you think this might change the world?

The controversy around rally attendance often leaves the public with “a view of the truth colored by the beliefs of the people making the estimates” (Goodier 2011). Hence, there is a lack of objective and independent crowd estimation, discrediting many social movements around the world where civilians express their opinions on various important issues through peaceful protests. In the context of rally count, my research aims to minimize the controversies within an independent count that is closer to the “truth” and to facilitate a more meaningful dialogue among stakeholders. As humans are often the focus of many pressing issues, such as the evolving coronavirus and global climate change, simulating their spatial behaviors (such as migration) can be helpful in understanding human dynamics in spatial epidemiology, public health, disaster response, special event management, urban planning and so on.

Keeping “Black Mirror” in mind can you see any potential drawbacks about this technology that people should think more deeply about?

This research leverages computer simulation of individual behaviors aggregating to collective geographic pattern(s), and it relies on many model parameters and a lot of individual data (aka “big data”) to fine-tune the model properly. Moreover, human dynamics in each event are unique and often non-repeatable. Therefore, it requires tremendous effort to collect high-quality and representative individual data (e.g. trajectory), to customize the computer model to simulate each event properly, and to interpret the model outputs. This process can be labor-intensive and time-consuming.

Hence, this approach is not a silver bullet, but it offers an alternative lens to describe what happened (or will happen). In the age of big surveillance, some may also be skeptical with regards to the use of big data in rally count, as they fear they are being watched or tracked.

Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this breakthrough? Can you tell us that story?

The organizers and police are typically the ones offering an estimated count of the rally. However, there has been a trend of increasing discrepancy between what the two groups report — up to 7 or 8 folds — that make neither party’s count meaningful nor trusted by the public. On the other hand, some researchers have adopted a statistical approach to manually count the moving crowd at one or two check points followed by a survey, which asked the protesters if they have visited the check point(s) to account for those who left early and joined late in between the check points. However, the political gridlock in Hong Kong has spawned numerous rallies in 2019, and the protesters have gradually adopted “guerilla” tactics of civil disobedience to cope with the tightened crowd control by the government. As a result, many protesters were not counted at the check points because they scattered all over the rally region.

Since, in a controlled setting, a historical event cannot repeat itself to count any protesters who might have been missed, we decided to explore an integrative approach by employing Artificial Intelligence to count at the check points, coupled with a simulation that can reconstruct the moving crowd repeatably to be calibrated by crowdsourced trajectories volunteered by selected protesters.

What do you need to lead this technology to widespread adoption?

Right now it takes weeks, and sometimes months, to customize, calibrate and run the model successfully. Unfortunately, this gap in time can lead to the results becoming obsolete once they are ready for proper interpretation. I have been working on moving this onto a cloud, or parallel, computing platform to speed up the process. But, this also requires a tremendous effort to recruit more volunteers and train them to provide a stronger quality of trajectory data.

What have you been doing to publicize this idea? Have you been using any innovative marketing strategies?

I have been marketing this project through the following platforms:

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I am in debt to the amazing volunteers who were part of the project: I Go There, I Count. Not only did they spend countless hours in the field collecting valuable data, they also provided constructive suggestions to improve the project overall. I attribute any success of my current project to their contributions.

I also appreciate the collaborative efforts of Prof. Paul Yip at Hong Kong University and Raymond Wong at C&R in this work. The project is inspired and motivated by all Hong Kong’ers who demonstrated high-quality civil engagement via their participation in the protests.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

In recent years, I have attempted more aggressively to conduct applied research that has stronger societal impact. In addition to publishing jargon-filled academic journals, I hope that my research can engage the general public by raising their awareness around these types of events and empowering them with the knowledge and tools to explore topics that matter to them. I also consider it an honor and privilege, but also my responsibility, to speak out on subjects where my expertise may contribute — if only a little — to “rebuke” myths around certain issues (e.g. rally count, migration, border control). Since 2017, I have published a lot of commentary pieces on public and digital media as they relate to various social issues.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

  • Keep dreaming. Creativity often comes in the least expected places, and from ideas that seem unrelated. As researchers, we are continuously in search of topics to explore. The ideas of crowdsourcing volunteer trajectories and rally simulations came from daily jogging using a mobile exercise tracking app and “The Sims” computer game, respectively. Remember to always dream big and eventually your ideas will become reality.
  • Identify your passion. There are ups and downs throughout our work and career. In my 15 years and counting working in academia, I continuously explore different topics that I like and enjoy doing. This in turn enhances the likelihood of being “successful” and in doing so, hopefully discover something meaningful for others as well. Being passionate helps me to persevere and ride out the storm through the ups and downs.
  • Pay attention to detail. Dreaming may inspire one to think big and creatively, but an eye for detail helps keep us grounded, and is ultimately what turns our dreams into reality. In the process of computer programming rally simulation, there are so many “bugs” (i.e. unexpected error or unrealistic crowd behaviors) that have to be discovered and fixed, and only when we pay attention to the finer detail are we able to identify these bugs.
  • Get a secondary “interest.” We are often encouraged to think outside the box. But our primary training in a specific discipline often leads us to think in a certain way. Expanding our horizon with a secondary “interest” can help us to think more broadly, far beyond what’s right in front of us. In academia, this means taking more courses (or even a major/minor) across different disciplines. My research interests often intersect GIScience, computer science and social science, and I have learned so much from other disciplines that provide useful insights. It is evident that multidisciplinary, inter-disciplinary, and transdisciplinary research can more readily lead to new innovation and breakthroughs.
  • Find partners. As mentioned above, it is often beyond my expertise to be able to learn, know and do everything. I appreciate my collaborators who can fill in the gaps. Moreover, it is important to have intellectual and/or social partners who can point out our blind spots. This goes beyond just being technical at work and extends to personal life as well. For example, as a researcher who studies big data, I have always been skeptical and hesitant to create a Facebook account. Nevertheless, social media is an important platform for community outreach, volunteer recruitment and civil engagement with the general public, all of which are also integral to fueling the rally project.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

In the digital era, the biggest threat to a civil society is “fake news,” or the idea that there are no agreeable facts. Despite the fact that we may have faster and more data available at our fingertips, we have less time to evaluate its reliability. Misinformation can polarize and threaten our universal values (e.g. democracy, integrity) that are treasured in a civil society. To enable critical thinking, it is important to have access to “facts” from independent sources. I would encourage people to verify or gain more exposure with fact-checking sources by exploring social media pages or visiting their websites regularly. Some examples may include the following:

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

My life lesson quote can be summarized as “stay hungry and stay humble,” which resonates with the Bible: “Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead” (Philippians 3:13). To me, “stay hungry” means maintaining my continual discovery of the truth through research; and “stay humble” is to share the lessons (i.e. the ups and downs) I have learned with others through teaching. I am thankful for certain life events, such as graduation(s), tenure, promotion, relocation, etc., which present both challenges and opportunities for me to do some soul-searching and to adjust my career and life goals as desired. So far I have enjoyed the ride. ☺

Some very well known VCs read this column. If you had 60 seconds to make a pitch to a VC, what would you say? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

We all have limited time and resources — what would you like to invest in? We will all rest in peace one day — what would you like to be known for? Most physical materials will pass away over time — what will have lasting values? My answers to those three questions are all related to humans — that it is very meaningful to make a lasting impact on others. The knowledge we share and impart on others can empower them to make a difference not only in their own lives, but in the lives of others. It is important, however, that we make an effort to ensure the knowledge we deliver is accurate, as this is how we as a society can maintain our civility and make advancements. I would like to invite you to invest in fact-checking sources (see the list above) and/or the research work that I do in providing evidence-based content to those sources.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Please subscribe and/or follow in any of the channels:

Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.

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