Digital footprints in national parks and green spaces

What draws people to nature trails and what aspects do people who spend time outdoors value? Using social media datasets, geographer Vuokko Heikinheimo has studied the use of green spaces and national parks in her doctoral thesis.

The data for the thesis was collected before the coronavirus pandemic, but the methods developed in it are particularly useful right now when so many people are rushing to popular hiking trails, making them congested. The phenomenon is international, albeit with different local manifestations. Vuokko Heikinheimo analysed datasets concerning the Pallas-Yllästunturi National Park and the national parks of South Africa, as well as the green spaces of the Helsinki region.

Social media data does not reveal the whole picture  

The study demonstrated that geographic information generated by people offers valuable additional information in support of planning and sustainable management of national parks and green spaces. While user-generated data can also provide valuable information for the development of local services, no commercial interests were associated with this study.

 “Social media data is a suitable supplement to traditional methods, such as visitor counts and surveys,” says Heikinheimo, who assessed in her thesis the usability of various datasets as sources of geographical information.

A number of different social media datasets utilised in the study were found to complement each other. Different groups of people use social media platforms for different purposes.

In urban areas, social media illustrates particularly well how people spend their free time in green spaces, what they do there and what kind of views they enjoy. Data gained from sports applications and smartphones provide accurate information on the temporal variation of park visits, such as where and when people move about in parks. This, in turn, sheds light on commuter cycling and other exercise activities conducted in green spaces in people’s free time.

“User-generated geographic information help to understand where, when and how people use and appreciate national parks and green spaces, especially in areas that are otherwise difficult to monitor. However, the unreliable availability of such data restricts their use in research. Furthermore, distortions related to user groups and the geographical coverage of datasets as well as questions of privacy restrict the practical application of this data,” Heikinheimo notes. On the other hand, new data sources include data from groups of people and concerning things that would otherwise be difficult to survey.

Heikinheimo’s doctoral thesis, which is soon to be publicly examined, is composed of four articles:

Article I provides an overview of the utilisation of social media data in conservation science, describing the key sources of research material and analysis methods. The article identifies approaches whose potential is yet to be fully utilised in research on human–nature interaction.

Article II compares social media data with a survey and visitor statistics from the Pallas-Yllästunturi National Park. The most popular activities and locations recur in both datasets.

Article III compares methods based on temporal and spatial information used to detect the place of residence of social media users, assessing the restrictions related to analyses.

Article IV compares different user-generated information in investigating the use of urban green spaces, focusing on social media data, data from smartphones and sports applications, as well as the results of a public participation geographic information survey (PPGIS).

Vuokko Heikinheimo completed her doctoral thesis in the Digital Geography Lab research group under the Social Media Data for Conservation Science project, which has received funding from the Kone Foundation.

Vuokko Heikinheimo, MSc, will defend her doctoral thesis entitled ‘User-Generated Geographic Information for Understanding Human Activities in Nature’ on 9 December 2020 at 10.00 at the Faculty of Science, University of Helsinki. Live Stream will be available.

Professor Catherine Pickering from Griffith University, Australia, will serve as the opponent and Professor Tuuli Toivonen as the custos.

The dissertation will be published in the series Department of Geosciences and Geography A.

The doctoral thesis entitled ‘User-Generated Geographic Information for Understanding Human Activities in Nature’ is also available in electronic form in Helda.

Contact details of the doctoral candidate:
Vuokko Heikinheimo,, +358 40 749 7961