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Every weekday morning CAI brings you coverage of local issues, news, and stories that matter. Join us for Morning Edition from 6 a.m. to 9a.m., with Kathryn Eident.

New Data Platform Aims to Get a Real Count of Nantucket's Population

Nantucket Data Platform

If  you were to ask how many year-round residents live on Nantucket, the answer would depend on whom you talk to. 


That prompted a project called the Nantucket Data Platform.  Alan Worden and his team have been counting and organizing data from town government, ferries, airports, the census, and other organizations to get a better picture of the community. Worden talked with WCAI's Kathryn Eident about some of the things he learned.

Eident: This project was borne out of a question that came from ReMain, which is a non-profit on the island that looks to preserve pieces of Nantucket through both real estate investment and charitable donations. And they were puzzled by this question which was: Who are we as a community?

Worden: Yeah, I've been advising ReMain since it started almost 10 years ago. And, as the community has shifted over the years, they didn't have a strong grasp of 'who is the community today?' So, there's a sense that people are leaving; at the same time, the Commonwealth says Nantucket is the fastest growing county in the Commonwealth. So, what's happening?

Eident: What tools did you use to get a better picture?

Worden: You would think you would rely on the U.S. Census, but they only do it every 10 years. They estimate every year between the decennial census. And so, we did look at the Census, and the Census said there were 11,000 people over here, and then anecdotally, you hear numbers more than double that. So, what we did was, Nantucket every year does a census and it puts that census against what's called the "street list." Street list is like a phone book. And so, we have the street list, that was pretty good, but we had a sense that the town census didn't have 100% participation. So, that's where big data came in. We went to a company, which grew out of political campaigns, and they have a database with publicly available and commercially available information.

And we said, 'hey can you apply a filter against your database to tell us who you think lives on Nantucket?' And when they did that, they found essentially 3,000 adults that the town didn't have in their own records. And, we found the correct number of children. And when you add up those three groups, we came up to 17,200 people.

Eident: You used some other pieces of information equating it to Disneyland, where you get counted as you come in. And, you found that you could do that in a similar way by boat and by plane.

Worden: This was the big breakthrough. What was important was not just to understand who lives here year-round, but it was to understand the procession of people who come and go. Because if you're staffing an emergency room, you want to know how many people are there on a busy August day. And so, in the end, we developed great data partnerships with HyLine, Steamship, and Cape Air, among others, and they were willing to give us access to the trip-level data. How many people were on every boat?

So, we focused on 2017. And so, if we believe 17,200 people live here year-round, then you can look at all the ferries and all the airlines and you could say, “Gee, 500 people came over, and 400 people went back at the end of the day. Our population just went up by 100." And, so we have a daily population count for 2017.

Eident: And you found some surprising things, like you could even drill down as deep as to find visitors and what beaches they're going to on the island?

Worden: Yes. So, one of the tools we use is mobility data. What mobility data does, it says look we have smartphones and we use G.P.S. We us it for Google Maps, and so that smartphone is using geolocation data, essentially telling these apps where you are. And those app companies will take that data, they'll aggregate it, and they will anonymize it and then they will provide it to research companies.

We have a relationship with a research company, and we draw an electronic fence around a beach and we can determine--assuming there are enough people--because if there too few people, there are privacy rules, and they won't tell us anything. But, if there's a group of people, call it a couple dozen people, they will be able to tell us generally where they live--what's their zip code. And so, privacy is protected, but in a place like Nantucket, when you are a small business and you're trying to market to visitors, do you just put it out of the Boston Globe that goes all over the Commonwealth? Or should you put an ad in The Patriot Ledger, or should you put it in the Wellesley Times. Because you know people from Wellesley are coming to Nantucket.

So, we had some fun. We looked at different beaches and we figured out that there are preferences where people go.

Eident: Are you hoping that you can continue to look at future years or is this a one time deal?

Worden: The whole idea was for this original research project to help ReMain. These tools didn't exist five years ago and we really determined that what would come out of that is this idea of a community data platform. So, all these decision makers, including citizens, could access this data and get answers so they can make better decisions.

And so, the goal is that this will be an ongoing community resource for Nantucket. We think the methodology that we're developing here can be brought to the Cape, or the Vineyard, or other towns that have the same issues.

Eident: Well Alan Worden, thanks so much for talking with us and giving us just a preview of all of the information that you've gleaned with this study.

Worden: Thanks so much.

*This transcript was lightly edited for grammar and clarity.

Kathryn Eident was the Morning Edition Host and Senior Producer of News until November 2022.