Instagram, Flickr, or Twitter: Assessing the usability of social media data for visitor monitoring in protected areas

How to cite this study

Tenkanen, H., Di Minin, E., Heikinheimo, V., et al. 2017. Instagram, Flickr, or Twitter: Assessing the usability of social media data for visitor monitoring in protected areas. Scientific Reports 7, 17615.


This 2014 study compares data from Instagram, Twitter, and Flickr to assess how official visitation statistics and social media predictions of visitation compare in 56 national parks in Finland and South Africa. Social-media-based visitor estimates match relatively well with the official visitor counts, although Instagram outperformed Twitter and Flickr. After the results were modeled, national park managers were interviewed to identify the differences in social media estimates and visitor statistics.


This study is relevant to those interested in estimating visitor counts in recreational areas using various social media platforms. Results highlight the significance of using multiple sources of data to improve visitation estimates. This increases the volume of data points and captures a wider spectrum of users due to different platform usage patterns and behaviors. The analysis is focused on a single year rather than a multi-year analysis, which the authors note works well if the social media platform is popular. Flickr, for example, had too few data points in many national parks to perform well for a single year. It’s important to note that official statistics may not be entirely accurate. For example, visitors can enter Finland parks without any official registration, so parks use automatic trail counters to estimate visitation.


This study analyzes 21 national parks in South Africa and 35 national parks in Finland.

Trail Type

This study analyzes 21 national parks in South Africa and 35 in Finland. These locations were chosen due to the up-to-date official visitor statistics and the differences in culture, economy, climate, and tourism in both countries. South Africa received 9.5 million international tourists and Finland 2.7 million of international tourists in 2014. In Finland most national parks are visited for outdoor activities such as hiking or skiing, while in South Africa game driving and observing large-bodied species are the most popular attractions. In both countries, tourism is an important part of the economy, generating US$ 9.3 billion in South Africa and US$ 3.6 billion in Finland.


The purpose of this study was to estimate visitation in 56 parks in South Africa and Finland using social media data. This study was funded by the Academy of Finland.


All results are for 2014. 

  • Overall, social media data tends to predict visitation more accurately in highly visited parks where more social media content has been uploaded. This pattern, however, is not consistent. Some low-visitation smaller parks had high correlations with social media data, and some highly visited parks had significant differences between social media and visitor statistics. 
  • Visitation from social media follows official statistics visitation relatively well: in 10% of the parks, both datasets nearly match one another with a correlation of 0.9. 50% of the parks have an equal or higher 0.7 correlation between the official monthly visitor count and the social media user days of the respective month. However, 20% of the parks have correlations below 0.3 and five of them have negative correlations where patterns do not match.
  • Instagram outperforms Twitter and Flickr in representing monthly visitor patterns. In South Africa, Instagram has a median correlation of 0.7, which is more than twice as high as the median correlation of Twitter and Flickr. In Finland, Instagram also performs better than Twitter and Flickr, but the differences are less evident than in South Africa.
  • When comparing the performance of different social media platforms, Instagram provided the most consistently successful results in single-platform analyses. However, all three platforms combined yield the most robust matches between the official visitor statistics and social media data.
  • Park managers in South Africa and Finland identified reasons that could explain the differences between social media and official visitor statistics. Reasons were grouped into categories: geography and location, park profile, visitor profile, and sudden events.


Visitor statistics from all 56 parks were obtained through national park authorities. In South Africa, visitor numbers are usually based on entrance ticket data while in Finland the visitor numbers are typically based on automatic counters on trails in the park. Data from Instagram, Flickr, and Twitter was collected using the Application Programming Interfaces for the year 2014. Posts in the national parks were selected using PostGIS, and a 10-km buffer was used to include posts from water areas. Only data that was publicly available was collected. The number of social media users per day was calculated (photo user days) and aggregated to months since the official statistics were monthly. Social media data and official statistics were compared using correlation coefficients to measure the linear relationship between observations from the two datasets. After obtaining the results, the results were assessed by three semi-structured group interviews to identify the local factors that could explain the differences and similarities in the comparisons of visitations. This involved 22 individuals (park managers, visitor statistics coordinators, and communication officials) from the national park authorities.

Added to library on November 29, 2023