Nature photographers have a new reason to post their geo-tagged images to Instagram, Flickr and other social media platforms.
Researchers at North Carolina State University found a goldmine of information in geo-tagged photos — including the millions of comments on them — of scenic European landscapes to determine people’s opinions of each site. From that information, they created predictive models to help guide land use policy, conservation planning and development decisions.
Urban sprawl, more intense use of agricultural lands and farm abandonment are threatening landscape integrity, the authors write in the Oct. 31 issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
“Social media offer the possibility of transforming the way researchers collect data on how we perceive and value the environment around us,” says Derek van Berkel, a postdoctoral researcher with NC State’s Center for Geospatial Analytics and co-lead author of the study. “Crowdsourced information provides an exciting alternative to small-scale social surveys, which are expensive and laborious to administer.”
This new method of information gathering can help residents and governments of the Swiss Alps decide whether mountain meadows are best suited for grazing cattle, suburban housing or a new ski resort. French residents could choose between allowing large-scale agricultural production or investing in preserving traditional hedgerows around fields because of their beauty and environmental value as habitat for birds and pollinating insects.
Researchers created algorithms to filter data from Instagram and Panoramio (now incorporated in Google Maps), which are widely used across Europe, and Flickr, which is more common in Central and Western Europe. They mapped the geographic distribution of images and ranked sites into four quartiles, from most- to least-visited locations. In analyzing visitor patterns, researchers found the most-valued landscapes included mountainous areas, locations near rivers and lakes and areas near population centres. “We also found variables describing accessibility, population density, income, mountainous terrain or proximity to water explained a significant portion of observed variation across data from the different platforms,” the authors write.
“We found that Panoramio, Instagram and Flickr provided comparable data that was reliable as an indicator of which landscapes visitors value most on a continental scale,” van Berkel says. However, Instagram’s larger user base and ability to allow users to share personally meaningful comments and hashtags to their images make it a particularly rich source of information to help quantify landscape values. “It’s difficult to put a numerical value on beauty and inspiration, but policymakers need to know which locations have aesthetic and cultural worth so that they can develop strategies to preserve those landscapes and think in terms of amenity-driven visitors and agricultural tourism to boost local economies.”
“These landscapes are clearly providing ecosystem services highly valued by society,” says Ross Meentemeyer, director of NC State’s Center for Geospatial Analytics and a co-author of the study. “Using social media to uncover and quantify people’s interest in ecosystem services is an exciting new approach to understanding the important connection between natural resources and human health and well-being.”
“Geospatial analytics allows us to study how urbanization changes the landscape and to predict the consequences of those changes,” van Berkel says. “Our goal is to model what will happen in different scenarios — something like what you’d see in Sim City — but using a computer model driven by real data about real places.”
While photographers of all ages post to social media, getting a snapshot of the values of millennials is particularly useful, van Berkel says, because they are a key demographic group for future land use decisions.