Environmental monitoring is an expensive and time-consuming endeavor. One solution: Tap data stored in tweets and Instagram photos to track the health of coral reefs and other marine ecosystems.
(From Oceans Deeply/ by Susanne Becken, Bela Stantic and Rod Connolly) — Social media platforms such as Twitter and Instagram could be a rich source of free information for scientists tasked with monitoring the health of coral reefs and other environmental assets, our new research suggests.
Ecosystems are under pressure all over the world, and monitoring their health is crucial. But scientific monitoring is very expensive, requiring a great deal of expertise, sophisticated instruments and detailed analysis, often in specialized laboratories.
This expense – and the need to educate and engage the public – have helped to fuel the rise of citizen science, in which nonspecialist members of the public help to make observations and compile data.
Our research suggests that the wealth of information posted on social media could be tapped in a similar way. Think of it as citizen science by people who don’t even realize they’re citizen scientists.
Smartphones and mobile internet connections have made it much easier for citizens to help gather scientific information. Examples of environmental monitoring apps include WilddogScan, Marine Debris Tracker, OakMapper and Journey North, which monitors the movements of monarch butterflies.
Meanwhile, social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Flickr host vast amounts of information. While not posted explicitly for environmental monitoring, social media posts from a place like the Great Barrier Reef can contain useful information about the health (or otherwise) of the environment there.
Twitter is a good resource for this type of “human sensing,” because data are freely available and the short posts are relatively easy to process. This approach could be particularly promising for popular places that are visited by many people.
In our research project, we downloaded almost 300,000 tweets posted from the Great Barrier Reef between July 1, 2016, and March 17, 2017.
After filtering for relevant keywords such as “fish,” “coral,” “turtle” or “bleach,” we cut this down to 13,344 potentially useful tweets. Some 61 percent of these tweets had geographic coordinates that allow spatial analysis. The heat map below shows the distribution of our tweets across the region.
Twitter is known as a place for sharing instantaneous opinions, perceptions and experiences. It is therefore reasonable to assume that if someone posts a tweet about the Great Barrier Reef from Cairns they are talking about a nearby part of the reef, so we can use the tweet’s geo-coordinates as indicators of the broad geographic area to which the post is referring. Images associated with such tweets would help to verify this assumption.