Social media fueled research could help protect the environment

by Allison Kronberg

From an Instagram photo of an awe-inspiring hike through the Rocky Mountains to a tweet recommending a peaceful camping spot by the Boundary Waters, social media outlets have become popular ways for many outdoor enthusiasts to share their stories. Those accounts, though, can be used for more than just trip advising. Researchers are using geographically tagged, or geotagged, media data to gauge how much people value natural environments, which could have implications for their protection. The Institute on the Environment hosted an event at the University of Minnesota last week to elaborate on the topic. âÄúHumans are sensors reporting things over social media, and scientists are able to interpret that information,âÄù said Brent Hecht, a University assistant computer science and engineering professor and social media characteristics expert who spoke at the event. Along with Hecht, the event featured Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment senior scientist Spencer Wood. HeâÄôs been using geotagged Flickr images of lakes for the Natural Capital Project âÄî an initiative that works to incorporate the value of nature into investment and policies âÄî to learn how important outdoor recreation is to people and how far they will to travel to experience it. Location information can be used along with whatâÄôs included in the post to compile a large set of qualitative information about how people feel in a particular natural place, Hecht said. Researchers had only known where people were spending their time in the past, he said, but now they can learn what draws them to that place and how they feel about it. That information could be presented to legislators, Hecht said, to help them make decisions about land-use or environmental protection laws. Neuroscience and genetics freshman Shika Rai uses Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr, but she said sheâÄôs unsure how sheâÄôd feel if researchers were to access her social media. âÄúI think it would make me uncomfortable at first,âÄù Rai said. âÄúBut depending on how they use it, it might be cool because they actually care about individual peopleâÄôs perspectives.âÄù Erin Schrode, co-founder and social media manager of Turning Green, a nonprofit that works to educate students across the country about sustainability, said she geotags almost all of her posts about nature. âÄúI love that I can show people the environmental world through my eyes through social media,âÄù she said. Schrode said her posts show that she cares about places in the environment and they often inspire others to visit the spots. But there are some problems with gathering information from social media. Most Internet posts are in the public domain, but social media companies are not always obligated to share all of their information. Some outlets limit the amount of data theyâÄôll release to the public for free. Also, only a portion of media is actually tagged with a location, Hecht said, and that small pool may not represent a whole populationâÄôs opinion. Despite its limitations, social media have made new sets of information accessible to researchers, Hecht said, and that will provide more opportunity for research in the future. Schrode is excited about those prospects. âÄúIf weâÄôre able to show legislators and policymakers that we are going to these places, utilizing them and enjoying them,âÄù she said, âÄúhopefully then theyâÄôll take a stance to protect them so that theyâÄôre there for us and for our children down the road.âÄù