An open-source image classifier for characterizing recreational activities across landscapes


Environmental management increasingly relies on information about ecosystem services for decision-making. Compared with regulating and provisioning services, cultural ecosystem services (CES) are particularly challenging to characterize and measure at management-relevant spatial scales, which has hindered their consideration in practice. Social media are one source of spatially explicit data on where environments support various types of CES, including physical activity. As tools for automating social media content analysis with artificial intelligence (AI) become more commonplace, studies are promoting the potential for AI and social media to provide new insights into CES. Few studies, however, have evaluated what biases are inherent to this approach and whether it is truly reproducible. This study introduces and applies a novel and open-source convolutional neural network model that uses computer vision to recognize recreational activities in the content of photographs shared as social media. We train a model to recognize 12 common recreational activities to map one aspect of recreation in a national forest in Washington, USA, based on images uploaded to Flickr. The image classifier performs well, overall, but varies by activity type. The model, which is trained with data from one region, performs nearly as well in a novel region of the same national forest, suggesting that it is broadly applicable across similar public lands. By comparing the results from our CNN model with an on-site survey, we find that there are apparent biases in which activities visitors choose to photograph and post to social media. After considering potential issues with underlying data and models, we map activity diversity and find that natural features (such as rivers, lakes and higher elevations) and some built infrastructure (campgrounds, trails, roads) support a greater diversity of activities in this region. We make our model and training weights available in open-source software, to facilitate reproducibility and further model development by researchers who seek to understand recreational values at management-relevant scales—and more broadly provide an example of how to build, test and apply AI to understand recreation and other types of CESs. Read the free Plain Language Summary for this article on the Journal blog.

People and Nature