The digital and natural worlds can be uneasy bedfellows, with the lure of technology frequently diverting attention away from under-appreciated natural beauty. Sometimes, though, technology can be a valuable tool in extolling the virtues of the natural world. That is certainly the case in a recent study, published in PLoS ONE, which has for the first time used social media images to calculate the value of conserved lands in the forested state of Vermont, USA.

Based on the number of users uploading Flickr photos, researchers at the University of Vermont estimate that visits to Vermont’s natural areas generated US$ 1.8 billion for the tourism industry between 2007 and 2014.

Nature-based recreation pays

Scientists and policy makers are increasingly justifying conservation efforts by emphasising the financial value of the natural world. Nature-based recreation, for example, can generate significant sums of money for the global economy, alongside offering great benefits for the physical, mental and cultural wellbeing of those who enjoy it. However, putting a price tag on these services is often hampered by a lack of data, which can be expensive and time-consuming to collect. Social media may be able to help.

To reach their estimate, the team first took to the photo sharing website Flickr and crunched through over 7000 images accompanied by location data. They counted the number of individuals that had uploaded at least one photo within distinct areas of Vermont’s conserved lands, and estimated the number of visits over the seven year period: a figure of nearly 30 million.

The next step was to multiply this estimate with the typical daily spend made by a visitor to Vermont – US$ 82 by in-state visitors and US$ 59 by out-of-state visitors – giving their final figure of US$ 1.8 billion.

Crucially, the ability of this novel technique to reflect true visitor numbers was not simply taken as given. As lead author Laura Sonter explained to Biosphere: “Social media can be a useful tool, when used correctly. It’s important to validate its use, which can be done by making comparisons with other forms of information, such as visitor surveys.”

Sonter and colleagues therefore confirmed that their Flickr-derived estimate of visit number was well correlated with visitation rates based on survey data collected in Vermont’s state parks.

Time matters

The researchers also used their Flickr dataset to ask which features of the landscape – such as forest cover, recreation opportunities and distance to towns – explained where visitors where choosing to go within Vermont, as well as how changes in these features explained changes in visitor preference over time.

Interestingly, the answers to these two questions sometimes appeared to be at odds with one another. For example, visit number was greater to conserved land with less forest cover, but clearing forests led to a decrease in visits between the first and second halves of the 2007 to 2014 time period.

Such a finding, argue Sonter and colleagues, highlights the importance of using models with a time-element when trying to understand people’s motivations for enjoying nature-based recreation, with important implications for land management decisions. As Sonter explains: “This information enables land managers to make more informed decisions on where to conserve land for recreation, and how the value of existing conserved lands can be enhanced.”


Sonter, L. J., Watson, K. B., Wood, S. A. & Ricketts, T. H. (2016). Spatial and temporal dynamics and value of nature-based recreation, estimated via social media PLoS ONE, 11(9), e0162372. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0162372


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