Using social media and advanced technology to gain new insights into how people appreciate and relate with nature. Photo credit: Gianni Crestani (Pixabay), rearranged by authors.

Read the article here.

In this study we want to show how social media data and Artificial intelligence (AI) can help decision-makers and practitioners manage our natural environment in a more sustainable way. Many of us indeed use social media every day but social media data, like photos on Flickr, can also be useful to tell researchers where people like to take pictures and what they like photographing. With the help of AI and social media data, we tried to understand which are the factors in the landscape that people probably like and that make them want to photograph it. Having data deriving from thousands of pictures taken by different people in different locations of the Dolomites in the Italian Alps over many years, we were able to correlate hotspots of activity to the presence of specific natural features, like a mountain, a lake or viewpoint, or man-made features, like pretty villages, a church or a wayside cross. By understanding better what it is that people like of our natural environment and what is important to them, managers can try to make people benefit the most from our natural environment while protecting it. For example, if too many people visiting one specific lake risk damaging its ecosystem, it might be necessary to protect it. By knowing why this lake is so attractive to people, managers might try to direct some people to a different lake with similar characteristics or might manage visitors better through appropriate infrastructure. But there is more – we used image recognition to make AI analyze the content of the pictures for us, and we trained a model to automatically group photos according to whether they represented a beautiful landscape, outdoor activities, symbolic species, or cultural heritage. This allowed us to get different, and more specific information that is needed to manage lakes, popular hiking routes, edelweiss, or pretty villages differently. By knowing more about peoples’ preferences and values, we can manage better our natural environment and make sure that also our grandchildren can benefit from beautiful places like the Dolomites.