Tweets could help scientists monitor major ecosystems

Aerial shot of Great Barrier Reef, showing mainly blue and green see and reef.
Social media could help keep track of the Great Barrier Reef.

New research from Griffith University suggests a love of sharing selfies and holiday snaps could be a boon for the environment.

Experts from the Griffith Institute for Tourism (GIFT), the Big Data and Smart Analytics Lab and the Australian Rivers Institute have investigated whether social media platforms could be used by scientists monitoring the health of major ecosystems.

Professor Susanne Becken

In a research paper published in the Journal of Environmental Management, the researchers used a sample of almost 300,000 tweets from the Great Barrier Reef region to test whether tapping into social media could enhance existing approaches to citizen science.

The tweets were collected between July 2016 and March 2017 and, using keywords, drilled down to more than 30 thousand useful posts.

Researchers were then able to determine where the tweet was posted, whether it contained useful details about the Great Barrier Reef and whether it had a positive or negative sentiment.

Professor Susanne Becken, Director of GIFT, said tweets can contain a range of useful information, from particular sightings like a whale, to ‘alerts’ such as dead fish or an oil spill.

“Users might also share more personal information, such as their experience or emotions relating to the Great Barrier Reef,” she said.

“Citizen science or, in this case, social media data is a relatively cheap and abundant source of information.

Professor Rod Connolly

“Extracting the most useful information for the particular research task is the challenge.”

In this study, dolphins by far attracted the largest proportion of positive tweets when looking at marine life or water.

Analysis suggested tweets about Cairns were also positive, while more tweets classified as ‘neutral’ were recorded in Townsville, Rockhampton, Cooktown and Hamilton Island. Tourists seemed to be most happy with activities such as sailing and snorkelling, while also demonstrating a concern for dugong populations.

Professor Rod Connolly, of the Australian Rivers Institute, said marine biologists provide high quality scientific data where and when they can.

“But analysis of social media potentially will help monitoring much more of something as extensive as the Great Barrier Reef,” he said.

Professor Bela Stantic

Director of the Big Data and Smart Analytics lab, Professor Bela Stantic, said this provides a valuable opportunity to use real life problems and data to test their methods and algorithms.

While the use of ‘human sensor data’ is in its infancy, the Griffith University research shows there’s great potential into the future, and not just in Australia.

In particular, it could be useful in places where professional monitoring is unaffordable.

Griffith University received funding through the National Environmental Science Program to complete this study.