Have you ever posted photos from a vacation to Flickr? Did you happen to geotag your photos? If so, then your vacation photos may have been part of a study that was recently published in Scientific Reports (an open access journal from the publishers of Nature). Recreation researchers have begun to explore the use of social media as a way to remotely gather information about recreation users. Wood et al. data mined Flickr’s collection of geotagged photos to see if they could use social media resources to quantify use levels for nature-based tourism and recreation destinations across the world.
Visitor surveys are timely, for visitors and researchers, and social science studies can be very expensive to conduct. As such, recreation researchers and managers try to find ways to gather information from visitors indirectly. Some of this data can be collected simply by “observing” visitors by using trail or traffic counters or even having field technicians simply count people and record their behaviors. My method of choice is combining trail counters with the use of GPS units to track people’s movements. However, even these less obtrusive techniques still require the researcher or managers to spend time in the field conducting research and setting up/maintaining equipment and field time and staff salaries cost money.
Wood et al. have developed a way to use social media to estimate visitor use to recreation and tourism destinations remotely; without ever having to step foot in the protected area. The authors used the almost 200 millions geotagged photos from Flickr to figure out where people were going and when they were going there (at a global scale) from 2005-2012. Wood et al. then collected actual empirical estimates of visitor use; measured in average user days per year. Most nature-tourism and recreation destinations have use level information that is in the public domain. For example, here is a link to the National Park Service use level numbers.
The author compared their average user day estimations from the Flickr photographs to the empirical estimates. Turns out that the photographic estimations were pretty good predictors of actual use! The researchers saw a fair bit of variability within and across sites but overall I was pretty surprised with how well the photographic estimates matched up with the empirical measures of visitor use. Now obviously, and the authors definitely point this out, there is going to be some “response bias” with using social media. For example, not every visitor is going to take pictures while on vacation and of those that do, not everyone is going to load their pictures to Flickr, and even of the people who do post to Flickr not all are going to take the time to geotag their photos.
I also do not know how useful this technique is from a management perspective. I feel like that for the most part – at least at the scale that this study was conducted – managers have a good sense of overall use to their individual nature-based tourism or recreation site. But I like the idea of thinking about how recreation researchers can use “non-traditional” data sources to understand recreation use levels and recreation use. The advent of hand-held GPS units and GIS technology has changed the way we go about understanding recreation behavior. Social media are another “technological tool” with a wealth of geolocated data that could be useful to recreation researchers and managers. I do not think we will ever get to the point where actually going into the field and talking with or observing visitors is obsolete but Wood et al.’s study shows that recreation researchers need to continue to think outside the box in terms of ways in which we can collect visitor use data.
Wood SA, Guerry AD, Silver JM, & Lacayo M (2013). Using social media to quantify nature-based tourism and recreation. Scientific reports, 3 PMID: 24131963