Where there are people, there are rats. Or, more accurately: Where there are well-off white people, there are complaints about rats. It’s just that two of the country’s biggest newspapers can’t seem to tell the difference.
I’ve lost my mind twice in the past year (for rat-related reasons) after reading pieces from the New York Times and the Washington Post about the supposedly exploding rat populations in New York and D.C. The problem is that claims about where these cities are the rattiest are being based on the public records of calls to 311 about them. And there are some very important qualifiers you’re going to want to keep in mind when using that data.
It comes clearer with a simple question: Who, exactly, is calling 311 about rats? The pieces published this week in the New York Times and last August in the Washington Post came to similar conclusions about where D.C. and New York City are seeing spikes in rativity (rat activity): the neighborhoods most rapidly gentrifying.
Beyond the shameful editorial oversight of not calling it gentRATification, the claim isn’t based off of the right data. The Times’ theory that “the city’s construction boom is digging up burrows, forcing more rats out into the open” makes sense. Couple that with milder winters not doing their job of being nature’s exterminator, and you have a clear recipe for a rattier New York. However, the way that they justify claiming an increase in rats—through an increase in calls to 311 about rats—isn’t a good (or accurate) method.
From the Post (emphasis mine):
In some of the city’s most densely populated areas, where trendy bars and restaurants have proliferated, complaints have increased at staggering rates.
And the Times (emphasis also mine):
The top spot for rat sighting complaints has been the Upper West Side, where residents are known for speaking up, followed by four Brooklyn neighborhoods: Prospect Heights, Bedford-Stuyvesant, Bushwick and Ocean Hill.
It’s easy to fall into this rat trap. Three years ago, I analyzed data for and co-wrote an article in Chicago’s South Side Weekly about which Chicago neighborhoods were the most beratted, based on calls made to 311 over the course of a month. WaPo, NYT, I was right there with you. But a year later I did a deeper analysis that also looked at a month’s worth of rat-related 311 calls, but this time incorporated demographic and socioeconomic data. It became clear that mapping 311 calls isn’t a good way to tell where rats are; it’s a way to tell where the wealthy white people live.
It could be true that there are more rats in gentrifying (increasingly white, increasingly affluent) neighborhoods. Maybe they just love a good kale caesar. But a Wired article from 2010 about 311 calls in New York City found that rodents only make up a small percentage of the overall calls during the course of an average day; noise complaints—and even lost property complaints—are far more numerous. A person’s tendency to call 311 is less about if they see a rat on their walk home from the subway and more about their belief that if they complain about it, the city will do something.
A study from 2016 drives this home, pointing out that it’s not that some people see more rats than others, it’s that some people think their complaints get heard and others, well, might have some experience to the contrary. As my co-author Jake Bittle and I wrote in the Weekly:
A study published in the Journal of Community Psychology concluded that among low-income residents of Baltimore, residents who reported daily rat sightings were less likely to believe that rats were a significant problem on their block. “In models controlling for significant demographic and neighborhood variables,” the study concluded, “those reporting frequent rat exposure…were less likely to know how to report rats to the city, and were less likely to believe the city would act if notified.”
The Times piece at least supported their general finding (of an increase in rodent-related complaints made to 311 over the past year) using city health inspection data. Beyond this, there’s no mention of the limitations of using 311 data to make claims about where rats are, or even why they’re using it as a stand-in for rat populations in the first place.
The reason so many outlets use 311 calls to report on rats is that anyone can access this information through the city’s open data portal, which makes tons of city data (everything from government employee salaries to filming permits) available to the public, and relatively simple to parse. But if I was going to do this kind of work again with the public data that’s available, I’d use only restaurant health inspection data. New York City’s Department of Health inspects every food-serving establishment in the city once a year, and if there are rats or evidence or rats, it’ll be in the report. This has its own shortcomings, of course—restaurants and delis are going to be clustered on main drags. No approximation of rats is ever going to be as good as going out there and counting them, however.
If what’s happening in Baltimore holds true for New York and D.C., then the claims these pieces make aren’t really about rats—they’re about the communities that live alongside them. It turns out it’s even more compelling when you pull the curtain to find that the viral rat story was about people all along.