Measuring recreational visitation at US National Parks with crowd-sourced photographs


Land managers rely on visitation data to inform policy and management decisions. However, visitation data is often costly and burdensome to obtain, and provides a limited depth of information. In this paper, we assess the validity of using crowd-sourced, online photographs to infer information about the habits and preferences of recreational visitors by comparing empirical data from the National Park Service to photograph data from the online platform Flickr for 38 National Parks in the western United States. Using multiple regression analysis, we find that the number of photos posted monthly in a park can reliably indicate the number of visitors to a park in a given month. Through additional statistical testing we also find that the home locations of photo-takers, provided voluntarily on an online profile, accurately show the home origins of park visitors. Together, these findings validate a new method for measuring recreational visitation, opening an opportunity for land managers worldwide to track and understand visitation by augmenting current data collection methods with crowd-sourced, online data that is easy and inexpensive to obtain. In addition, it enables future research on how visitation rates change with changes in access, management or infrastructure, weather events, or ecosystem health, and facilitates valuation research, such as travel cost studies.

Journal of Environmental Management