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Tapping into social media posts on photo-sharing platforms like Instagram, Flickr and Panoramio can help identify people’s opinions on scenic landscapes, and preserve them from the effects of urbanisation, researchers say. The study shows that geo-tagged photos — complete with millions of comments — can provide data for predictive models to help guide land use policy, conservation planning and development decisions worldwide.
“Millions of people post pictures of their favourite places on social media every day. We can use this data to determine something about the places that we, as a society, value most,” said Jordan Smith, Assistant Professor in the Utah State University, US.
The research comes as land use in Europe and worldwide continues to shift because of urbanisation. Land devoted to agriculture, mining and forestry may be managed for recreation, leisure activities and tourism instead.
“It is 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,” said Derek van Berkel, postdoctoral researcher at the North Carolina State University in the US.
Researchers created algorithms to filter data from the photo-sharing websites Instagram, Flickr and Panoramio and mapped the geographic distribution of images in Europe and ranked sites into four quartiles, from most- to least-visited locations.
In analysing visitor patterns, researchers found the most-valued landscapes included mountainous areas, locations near rivers and lakes, and areas near population centres.
“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,” explained Ross Meentemeyer from the North Carolina State University.
In addition, the new photo-sharing data provides a snapshot of the values of millennials, a key demographic group for future land use decisions as well as provides an exciting alternative to small-scale social surveys, which are expensive and laborious to administer, the researchers said.
The study was published online in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).