Saturday, April 23, 2016

What's In A Number?

Every year, the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness conducts its One Night Count, during which volunteers go out and tally the number of people they find without shelter during the night. This year, the count found some 19% percent more people than last year, a number that local news outlets were quick to publicize. It had been the same story last year, when the count reported a jump of just above 20%.

On Google+, where most of the people whose posts I see are liberal, people bemoaned the increases, and pointed to a culture of ignoring the plight of the poor. On LinkedIn, where businesspeople make the community more conservative, people were asking if "generous" benefits to the homeless were enticing them to come, or if other cities were handing out one-way bus tickets.

Lost in the headlines and the resultant finger-pointing was a simple fact. The One Night Count is not a controlled, scientific census. It's a group of volunteers going out for three hours on a Winter's night in January and counting the heads they find. The raw numbers, which are the ones behind the headlines, don't take into account that the number of volunteers is not fixed, nor are the locations canvassed. When new people join the effort, and new neighborhoods are included, of course the numbers will go up.

The question is, does it matter? To the people wringing their hands on either side of the issue, the numbers serve their purpose, giving them a platform to undermine the liberal bona-fides of the Seattle area or portray the city government as profligate and uncaring about the effects on law-abiding homeowners/taxpayers. And the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness receives an annual boost of publicity every time a boost in the numbers is widely reported. Is it important that the conclusions people draw from the "dirty" data are almost certainly incorrect?

My Truth Reflex wants me to tell people that they don't know the story as well as they think they do. But for the past 8 years now, I've been on my guard against that very same reflex. And it's that guard that prompts me to reconsider. The fact that the data isn't controlled for factors like the number of volunteers or the number of neighborhoods isn't a secret. And people aren't really making important decisions based on that data - they're simply acting on their preconceived notions. Does telling them that their instinct for the size of the local homeless population has been misguided really do anything in that regard? I've come to doubt it. And so I quash the reflex, and put it back to bed. Maybe one day, it will be needed. But not today.

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