Science & Environment

Selfie-help for conservation areas

Researchers among mangroves, Singapore (Image: Habitat News via Flickr) Image copyright HabitatNews

Images uploaded to social media websites hold valuable data that could be used to help protect or manage natural spaces, a study has suggested.

Geotagged images provided a precise location of where the photo was taken and how people were interacting with the environment, it added.

This data could be collated to provide information that could help inform the management of ecosystems.

The findings were outlined at a science meeting in Lille, France, on Thursday.

The details were outlined at the joint annual meeting of the British Ecological Society and Société Française d'Ecologie by Daniel Richards from the National University of Singapore.

Speaking before his presentation, he told BBC News: "I think a lot of us have not realised the resources that are available.

"It could be that the researchers do not use social media themselves or they are not aware of its potential but I think it definitely will become more popular."

Conservation in cyberspace

Dr Richards explained why he and his colleagues felt it was important to develop a research tool that could harness the power of social media.

"I am interested in how we can use this big concept of ecosystem service - the things that nature does for us - and how we can apply that to real, day-to-day environmental management," he said.

"One of the problems of doing that at the moment is that some ecosystem services, such as cultural aspects - including recreational and educational, are harder to assess than carbon (sequestration) or biodiversity where you can go out and count something.

"We wanted to try to create an indicator... that you can quickly and easily get information on a very small scale on the use people get from a habitat."

In order to do that, Dr Richards and his team used the Flickr website that allows people to upload and share their photos.

He observed: "Flickr lets you search by area so we focused on the mangrove reserves (in Singapore) we were interested in.

"We identified about 250 images for each mangrove reserve and went through them one by one. We had a team to look at each image to categorise them according to what was the main part of the photograph.

"Was it an animal? Was it a landscape? Or was it social - people taking selfies, etc?"

The team found that each reserve, depending on its function, seemed to influence what category of photo people took at the site.

"One of the reserves, which was a bird reserve, had 60% animal photographs, whereas some of the other - the more tourist-friendly - there were a lot more social photos or landscape photos and less of the wildlife," Dr Richards explained.

He added that the results of the study did provide information that could be used by reserve managers in their land management strategies.

"One of the things that was interesting was that there was a boardwalk at one of the reserve sites.

"These boardwalks are sometimes created to allow people to get closer to the animals but we found that most of the photographs of animals were not from this area.

So if you were looking after this boardwalk, you might be interested in why that was the case. Was it because there were not any animals around the boardwalk and people scare them off?

"It could be that a lot of the animals in this area are small crabs and fish, and people might not be aware of them so if you put up some signs or information then it might help people," Dr Richards said.

"It raises new questions that could allow you to go out and do an ecological survey to get to the bottom of this."

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