The Topline: Vaccines, solar power and bigfoot

By: - November 13, 2023 7:34 am

Vials of measles, mumps and rubella vaccine are displayed on a counter at a Walgreens Pharmacy on January 26, 2015 | Photo by Illustration Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Welcome to The Topline, a weekly roundup of the big numbers driving the Minnesota news cycle, as well as the smaller ones that you might have missed.

Minnesota children are below average (on regular vaccines)

The CDC recently released new data on vaccination rates among America’s kindergartners. Note that these aren’t COVID-19 shots, but rather the regular slate of childhood vaccines — polio, MMR, diphtheria, etc. — that kids have been getting forever.

For the 2022-2023 school year, about 3% of American kindergartners’ families claimed exemption from the vaccines, the highest level ever recorded — and a reflection of how anti-vax panic has made inroads in the wake of the pandemic.

Minnesota kids fared worse than average, with at least 4.5% claiming exemptions, up nearly a percentage point year-over-year. That’s high enough that it’s starting to put population-level immunity at risk for certain communicable diseases: Once that number goes above 5%, according to the CDC, you start seeing outbreaks in poorly vaccinated communities.

On the other hand, we’re still doing better than Idaho, the state with the highest exemption rate at a whopping 12%. Get your act together, Idaho.

Minnesota a hotspot for solar

The Department of Energy’s Berkeley Lab has a nifty map of large-scale solar installations in the U.S. Minnesota stands out for our big cluster of solar projects in the southern half of the state, especially relative to neighboring states that show barely any development.

Overall, the map is a reminder of how much policy matters for renewable projects. The states with the most big solar projects aren’t necessarily the sunniest, but rather the ones that have prioritized solar development.

Minneapolis just throwing money at cops now

The city of Minneapolis recently announced a new hire/retention program intended to address the MPD’s staffing shortage. Under the plan, new hires will get a $15,000 bonus over three years, while existing officers get $18,000. That may sound like a lot, but it’s considerably less than the amount the department currently pays out in overtime. 

Through August of this year, for instance, the MPD had already paid out some $14.4 million in overtime. The bonuses are expected to cost $15.3 million over three years.

And if that’s not enough, off-duty work can be quite lucrative, as Deena Winter showed in her recent investigation of police side hustles. 

The dirty data secret behind those viral pie maps

Thanksgiving season means it’s time for Google and other data brokers to churn out maps purporting to show each state’s favorite pie or side dish or what-have-you. The results often end up being outlandish enough to make everyone hate-share them — Minnesota’s favorite pie, according to Google: “cream pie.” Which is kind of their entire reason for existence: more hate-shares, more eyeballs for advertisers.

People tend to assume the numbers are completely made up, but there’s actually an interesting data story in here about what these maps actually measure. Google is pretty scrupulous about this, and when you look at one of their maps you’ll notice it doesn’t say “favorite” or “most popular” but rather something like “most uniquely searched.”

“Uniquely searched” means a term that is “over-represented in a region compared to the country,” according to Google. So if Minnesotans search for “cream pie” at a rate twice that of every other state, and is not similarly an outlier on other pie searches, “cream pie” becomes our most uniquely searched pie.

Note that this is very different than “most popular.” The reason Google uses the bizarro “uniquely searched” metric is because there’s not a whole lot of regional variation when it comes to actual popularity. The actual most popular pie, in almost every single state, is pumpkin, according to Google search data.

But a big ol’ map with the word “PUMPKIN” scrawled across it doesn’t make for compelling viral content. 

Speaking of suspicious data

I am duty-bound to report that there exists a quasi-official map of bigfoot sightings in Minnesota. It is maintained by the Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization, which bills itself as “the only scientific research organization exploring the bigfoot/sasquatch mystery.”

BFRO claims there have been 77 bigfoot sightings in Minnesota, with the most concentrated in St. Louis County. Last month, for instance, witness Jeff Stanley of Lester Prairie reported that while out grouse hunting with his mom, “We seen a bigfoot off the trail in the grassy ditch and it slowly moved off the trail west to east.”

The administrators of the site deem this report to be credible, noting that “there are bigfoots in this vicinity” and “I’ve heard them with my own ears.”

The editors of the Minnesota Reformer wish to remind readers that while there is no such thing as bigfoot, everyone needs a hobby and on the whole this seems a whole lot less socially corrosive than say, Q-Anon.

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Christopher Ingraham
Christopher Ingraham

Christopher Ingraham covers greater Minnesota and reports on data-driven stories across the state. He's the author of the book "If You Lived Here You'd Be Home By Now," about his family's journey from the Baltimore suburbs to rural northwest Minnesota. He was previously a data reporter for the Washington Post.