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Science and Innovations

Earth Notes: Using Social Media to Manage the Outdoors

Photo by Ryan Heinsius

The managers of nature-oriented parks, including many on the Colorado Plateau, don’t always know how many visitors to expect, or when peak visiting times will come. But, technology may be changing that. It turns out that vacation photos posted by tourists on the Internet may be able to improve managers’ understanding of how people use and enjoy parks.

That’s the argument of scientists at Stanford University and affiliates who used the photo-sharing site Flickr to measure where, when and how people visit such popular outdoor destinations as the Grand Canyon.

Researchers at Stanford’s Natural Capital Project analyzed crowd-sourced information from 1.4 million geo-tagged images found online. They wanted to see where those posting pictures were going, and where they came from.

Comparing this to data from on-site surveys at 836 recreational sites, they concluded that information from Flickr is a reliable indicator of when and how people visit a particular nature-based attraction. And those data can be used to predict future visitation rates.

Before now, calculating visitation rates and tourism values for tourism and recreation depended on local surveys and “old school” head counts. Using social media to do this is faster, less expensive, and seemingly better at gauging changes over time and space.

It may also clarify what specifically attracts visitors to natural areas and determine if changes in ecosystems have an impact. In coming years land-use planners, park employees and government officials may often apply such findings to better manage natural resources for those who use them.

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