A picture is worth a thousand data points.
Most people post vacation photos on social media to share with friends and (humble) brag, but the posts can also help researchers.
In a recent study, researchers looked at social media photos to identify the most beloved outdoor landscapes in Europe.
They gathered more than 7 million images posted on Instagram, Panoramio, and Flickr, from January 2015 to November 2015, and looked for non-urban landscapes—like mountains and rolling hills—to estimate which features of outdoor landscapes people valued most.
Some of the most popular landscapes included mountainous areas like the Alps, the Pyrenees, the Scottish Highlands, and the Apennines.
Proximity to water was also a valued element, according to the study: Coastal areas near Cornwall in the U.K., Liguria in Italy, and locations like the Basque Country, Costa Brava, and the Balearic Islands in Spain, were the most common.
According to Jordan Smith, director of the institute of outdoor recreation and tourism at Utah State University, social media data has not previously been used on such a large scale. (Rather, previous studies have looked at more isolated information, like the number of people visiting national parks.º
Findings from large datasets can be used by people like national park managers, to identify which areas of the park people value most, or by officials and marketers, to determine the best landscape characteristics to promote.
“Social media offers the possibility of transforming the way researchers collect data on how we perceive and value the environment around us,” said Derek van Berkel, co-lead author of the study, in a statement. “Crowdsourced information provides an exciting alternatives to small-scale social surveys, which are expensive and laborious to administer.”