- Conservationists can capture data and use it to generate useful insights for conservation on the relationship between humans and nature. Research in this area falls within the scope of the field of conservation culturomics, the study of human culture through the quantitative analysis of digital data.
- Several studies have used internet search-engine data to evaluate public interest in conservation. These studies were subjected to a few criticisms, however, including the fact that raw data are unavailable due to proprietary constraints. In response to these criticisms, a recent study proposed a methodological work-around — an important contribution that merits praise but should be interpreted with caution.
- Does this mean we should forfeit any hopes that internet data and digital methods can provide useful insights for conservation? Certainly not! The application of digital methods to conservation has immense potential, but also faces challenges inherent to any new development.
- This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.
Conservationists are increasingly looking toward technology for aid. We are now better able to monitor forest change as result of deforestation or climate change, survey inaccessible areas for rare species using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs, or drones) or track endangered animals in their journeys across the globe with tracking devices, and use the knowledge obtained through these technologies to improve conservation action.
But the contribution of technology to conservation doesn’t end there: it is also helping conservationists to better understand human-nature interactions. As access to information and communication technologies (e.g. the Internet, smartphones, social media, etc.) increases across the world, so do records of the interactions between humans and nature in the digital realm.
Conservationists can capture these data and use it to generate useful insights for conservation on the relationship between humans and nature, including estimating protected area visitation, exploring how different groups of people engage in recreational activities such as hunting and fishing, and monitoring the trade of endangered species on the internet. Research in this area falls within the scope of the field of conservation culturomics, the study of human culture through the quantitative analysis of digital data, recently highlighted as one of the key emerging topics in conservation.
Several studies have used internet search-engine data to evaluate public interest in conservation. The number of internet searches for conservation and biodiversity-related topics can be regarded as a proxy of interest in these topics, and by collecting such data from internet searches engines — the most prominent example being Google — it may be possible to evaluate how interest changes over time. Some of the earliest studies exploring internet search data with this aim (see here and here, for instance) reported severe declines in global interest for conservation-related topics since the early 2000s (when search engine data started becoming available). These studies were subjected to a few criticisms, however, including the fact that raw data are unavailable due to proprietary constraints. Internet search data are usually provided only in pre-analyzed format, in the form of an index representing relative search interest, and this makes it difficult to evaluate how the actual volume of searches has changed over time.
In response to these criticisms, a recent study proposed a methodological work-around that accounts for how the total number of internet searches has changed over time, making it possible to infer how the absolute volume of searches for a given topic has changed over time. Applying this method to a range of conservation and climate change-related topics, the authors reached the conclusion that the number of searches for this topic has greatly increased in recent years. Not only that, the study also suggests that conservation topics generate similar levels of interest to environmental change topics, such as climate change and global warming, in contrast to what has been previously claimed.
The authors argue that their results have important consequences for how conservation science is communicated to the public, particularly in relation to other topics of concern such as climate change, and the positive outlook provided by this study was quickly picked up and publicized by various news media, including an article in Mongabay. The methodology proposed by this study is certainly an important contribution that merits praise, but its results should be interpreted with caution.
Specifically, an increase in the total number of internet searches should be expected for any topic in recent years because search engine usage has increased exponentially in this period. Access to the internet is increasing worldwide and ever more people are taking advantage of search engines to retrieve information for the web. Internet search trends may therefore be affected by factors such as the growth in internet access, search engine usage, time spent online, and the changing nature of internet usage. Furthermore, the reported similarity between public interest in biodiversity and climate change topics failed to account for differences in absolute search volume between topics and short-term variations in public interest that, when accounted for, suggest interest in these topics is less similar and more dynamic than reported. Clearly, scientists aiming to extract inferences on public interest in conservation (or any other topic) from internet data are faced with important methodological challenges because results and interpretations may differ depending on which factors are considered and accounted for.
Does this mean we should forfeit any hopes that internet data and digital methods can provide useful insights for conservation? Certainly not! The application of digital methods to conservation has immense potential, but also faces challenges inherent to any new development. Conservationists need to recognize the limitations and challenges associated with digital data and methods and collaborate with colleagues, both within and outside the field, to develop innovative ways to overcome them if we are to take full advantage of the opportunities such methods provide. More studies like these are needed to advance the field — one possible way forward is to combine data from multiple digital data sources (e.g. search engines, social media, Wikipedia, etc.) to validate results across platforms, but other solutions may emerge.
To help in these developments, the Society for Conservation Biology has recently approved the establishment of a Conservation Culturomics working group, which hopes to bring together scientists, practitioners and decision-makers interested in advancing the application of digital methods to conservation problems. The group aims to facilitate discussions, knowledge-sharing, and collaborative efforts through a welcoming, supportive, and stimulating environment. The group is already organizing several activities, including a symposium in the upcoming International Conference on Conservation Biology and a proposed special section in Conservation Biology dedicated to the topic. As one of the founding members of the group, I would like to encourage all interested parties to join this endeavor and work together toward advancing digital methods for conservation.
• Burivalova, Z., Butler, R. A., & Wilcove, D. S. (2018). Analyzing Google search data to debunk myths about the public’s interest in conservation. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 16(9), 509-514. doi:10.1002/fee.1962
• Correia, R. A., Di Minin, E., Jarić, I., Jepson, P., Ladle, R., Mittermeier, J., … & Veríssimo, D. (2019). Inferring public interest from search engine data requires caution. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 17(5), 254-255. doi:10.1002/fee.2048
• Di Minin, E., Fink, C., Hiippala, T., & Tenkanen, H. (2019). A framework for investigating illegal wildlife trade on social media with machine learning. Conservation biology. doi:10.1111/cobi.13104
• Ladle, R. J., Correia, R. A., Do, Y., Joo, G. J., Malhado, A. C., Proulx, R., … & Jepson, P. (2016). Conservation culturomics. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 14(5), 269-275. doi:10.1002/fee.1260
• Mccallum, M. L., & Bury, G. W. (2013). Google search patterns suggest declining interest in the environment. Biodiversity and conservation, 22(6-7), 1355-1367. doi:10.1007/s10531-013-0476-6
• Sbragaglia, V., Correia, R. A., Coco, S., & Arlinghaus, R. (2019). Data mining on YouTube reveals fisher group-specific harvesting patterns and social engagement in recreational anglers and spearfishers. ICES Journal of Marine Science. doi:10.1093/icesjms/fsz100
• Sutherland, W. J., Butchart, S. H., Connor, B., Culshaw, C., Dicks, L. V., Dinsdale, J., … & Jiang, Z. (2018). A 2018 horizon scan of emerging issues for global conservation and biological diversity. Trends in ecology & evolution, 33(1), 47-58. doi:10.1016/j.tree.2017.11.006
• Tenkanen, H., Di Minin, E., Heikinheimo, V., Hausmann, A., Herbst, M., Kajala, L., & Toivonen, T. (2017). Instagram, Flickr, or Twitter: Assessing the usability of social media data for visitor monitoring in protected areas. Scientific reports, 7(1), 17615. doi:10.1038/s41598-017-18007-4
• Troumbis, A. Y. (2017). Declining Google Trends of public interest in biodiversity: semantics, statistics or traceability of changing priorities?. Biodiversity and Conservation, 26(6), 1495-1505. doi:10.1007/s10531-017-1294-z
Ricardo Correia is a researcher based at the University of Aveiro (Portugal) and the Federal University of Alagoas (Brazil). His research focuses on the use of novel technologies for conservation applications, including the study of human-nature interactions from internet data. Ricardo is also one of the members of the Conservation Culturomics working group steering committee.
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