Social media opens new doors for geography

Location tags in social media generate data which are used by several different kinds of geographical research in Professor Tuuli Toivonen’s research group at the Department of Geosciences and Geography.

The geographer asks where, what, when and why. Social media data can answer these questions, often in real time.

The rhythm of the city in terms of time and location can be seen on a map, and the contents of openly shared updates let researchers know what the hottest topics are in any given district. More long-term tracking can provide insight into the ways people use urban space, or how locals differ from tourists in this sense.

Save the elephants

The number of visitors to national parks can be estimated with visitor counters placed along a path or with surveys, but increasingly researchers use visitors’ Instagram posts. The location tags of the posts allow researchers to evaluate the number of visitors and the paths they take, at least in the most popular national parks.

A tentative comparison of interviews and social media contents indicates that the interests and experiences of visitors can be mapped using either method of data collection. A photo of a kayak on a calm lake or a thermos and skis stuck in a snowbank can reveal interesting details about a trip to a national park.

At the moment, the data are largely analysed by humans, but as image recognition algorithms develop rapidly, they will make data production faster. Results are already being used to develop services at national parks and to justify their existence.

Another goal is the preservation of species. The Department of Geosciences and Geography is also studying national parks in Africa. Researcher Enrico di Minin is looking for ways to save the remaining elephants. Can social media updates help authorities stop poachers?

An abundance of data

In principle, social media data are easy to collect. Researchers use Python code to read the data from the open interface and package them in a database for further analysis. Data are gathered quickly and in great abundance. This is how Henrikki Tenkanen, who is working on his dissertation, has collected Twitter, Instagram and Flickr data on the selected research areas for the research group.

Twitter data are available more extensively and as far back as 2012, as the group can also access material accrued by its partner, the University of Kentucky. The University of Helsinki has been collecting data since 2014, explains Tuuli Toivonen.

Estonian mobile phone data

In addition to social media, mobile phone data provide an interesting source of information for researching the ways people move and use space. French telecommunications company Orange organised a science competition in which even the content of messages sent from phones was released to the participants, who were then tasked with developing applications based on the information.

Strong privacy laws make it difficult for researchers to access mobile phone data in Finland. For example, Estonia has allowed research use of mobile phone data, which has been a great success, producing internationally pioneering research. Good cooperation means that this has also brought competence to Finland. Postdoctoral Researcher Olle Järv, who wrote his dissertation on the use of mobile phone data in Estonia, is using the methods developed for mobile phone data to analyse social media data.  

In a way, social media data are more interesting than mobile phone data at the moment, says Tuuli Toivonen. She believes that open access to source material is important for research, as it lets others inspect the methods and results.

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