HomeDiscoveryNatural Capital Project7 things we learned about social media & environment

7 things we learned about social media & environment

This story was originally published my Anya Moucha and has been republished with permission.

This week Brent Hecht, an assistant professor in the College of Science and Engineering, and Spencer Wood, senior scientist with the Natural Capital Project at Stanford University, joined Frontiers in the Environment to discuss how social media can be used to inform the causes and consequences of environmental change. Here are seven things we learned:

1. We’ve entered a new era of data. The explosion of social media has created an abundance of data not previously available. Geotagged information (the inclusion of geographical information on forms media, such as marking your location in a Tweet) from social media is one way to harness these data in a useful way. Using the combination of location information in conjunction with the information included in the post, researchers can gleam new insights.

2. We can use the data in new and exciting ways. With information from tweets able to travel faster than an earthquake, social media has already been known to change disaster response. But researchers see even more potential with this technology. Spencer Wood’s team with the Natural Capital Project has been using geocoded Flickr images to learn about the ways people value the environment for recreation and how far people are willing to travel in order to experience natural areas. This is just one example of the way researchers can use social media data to make connections between people and the ways they interact with the world.

3. Geotagged social media is both accessible and inaccessible. Social media has provided thousands of new datasets and information about social behavior. In a sense, all of this information is easy to access, yet at the same time it is restricted by the companies that operate it. Social media companies are generally not obligated to release all of their data to the public. In the case of Twitter, only a 1 percent sample of the data is available free of charge, and some information is still not available to purchase.

4. We need to be conscious of bias and imprecision. When they use information from social media, researchers only include people who use this type of technology, and thus probably not getting a sample representative of a large and diverse population. Additionally, only 1–3 percent of tweets included geotagged location information, and many of these will be inaccurate. This bias and imprecision presents serious challenges and requires creative and thoughtful experiment design.

5. The “platial” effect. One of the most exciting features about social media data is the emergence of a new type of understanding. We used to be restricted to thinking spatially, but social media has allowed us to seeplace — the lived experience within spatial areas. We’re moving beyond simply knowing where people are spending their time to understanding what draws them to a place and how they experience it.

6. There are barriers to this technology. While social media presents exciting opportunities, there are some concerns about relying on it as a data source. Social media sites are designed for the user experience and were not intentionally built for scientific purposes. Because of this, scientists are not able to control the experiments and are subject to the changing nature of the media. Additionally, there are restrictions on what information is accessible, including legal barriers that can cause problems in reproducing experiments.

7. Applying the information. Despite its limitations, this new technology holds opportunity for environmental protection. Social media research can be used alongside traditional methods to help answer difficult questions, and it can help inform policy decisions by offering otherwise unattainable qualitative predictions.

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