Using social media images to assess ecosystem services in a remote protected area in the Argentinean Andes

How to cite this study

Rossi, S.D., Barros, A., Walden-Schreiner, C. and Pickering, C. 2020. Using social media images to assess ecosystem services in a remote protected area in the Argentinean Andes. Ambio 49:1146-1160.


In this study, Flickr is used to evaluate the perception and attitudes of day-use and multi-day adventure-based visitors on Mount Aconcagua in Argentina. The study aims to determine the relative popularity of different parts of the park and how the Flickr image content differs between the easily accessible day-use areas and more remote areas of the park. Day-use area images were found to be more likely related to biodiversity, geology, and education. Images from remote areas were more likely to be related to social interactions and freshwater features and display mountain ranges, campsites, and people looking directly at the camera.


This study is relevant to researchers interested in using social media image data to assess the perspectives of visitors in outdoor recreational areas. Understanding the differences in values and attitudes of different visitors such as day-use visitors and longer-stay visitors can help inform management strategies. For example, using data on what visitors look for and prefer to post online, managers can more accurately create education or marketing programs to encourage or manage tourism. The data can also be used to design environmentally beneficial initiatives informing tourists about environmentally responsible behaviors and safety in outdoor spaces. Social media as a data source is also useful in areas where resources are limited because it can be freely accessible, relatively quick to use, and less expensive than other methods. It’s worth noting that using social media does have some limitations, such as accurately coding all ecosystem services since not all ecosystem services are noticeable in every image.


This study is located on Mount Aconcagua in Argentina. It is the highest mountain in the Americas.

Trail Type

This study is located in Aconcagua Provincial Park which covers 700 km². It is a protected area in Argentina containing Mount Aconcagua. The park has about 41,000 visitors in the summer months.


Due to severe resource constraints, park management and monitoring are limited on Mount Aconcagua. The purpose of this study was to address these constraints by using social media as an innovative approach to assess visitor perceptions. Funding was provided by The Scientific and Technological Research Fund managed by the Argentine federal government.


  • Out of the 334 images posted, 64% were taken in the summer, 21% in autumn, 4% in winter, and 11% in spring. Additionally, 78% of those posting used digital cameras and 22% used mobile phones with cameras. 
  • Ecosystem services associated with the content of the images included 87% with aesthetic, 65% with fresh-water provisioning, and 64% with recreation and tourism activities. Images related to biodiversity were not common: only 20% were coded with biodiversity, 11% with cultural heritage, and 11% with iconic geological features. (Images could be coded with more than one category.) 
  • Day-use area images were more likely to be related to biodiversity-existence, geology, and education ecosystem services (such as trail information signs or a visitor center), and more likely to focus on features such as the single peak of Mt. Aconcagua, historical structures, recreational trails, and activities including walking and birdwatching. 
  • Remote-area images were more likely to be related to social relations and freshwater-provisioning ecosystem services and to display mountain ranges, glaciers, rivers, campsites, tents, and people looking directly at the camera. 
  • There were few images of animals in either the day-use or remote areas of Aconcagua Provincial Park – possibly because they may be difficult to photograph or they may avoid these areas. 


To access Flickr photos, the programming language R and Flickr’s Application Programming Interface (API) were used to retrieve geotagged images taken in Aconcagua Provincial Park from November 2010 through July 2018. Data retrieved included the date of the upload to Flickr, when the image was taken, owner ID, number of views, image URL, camera type, and geolocation of where the image was taken with longitude and latitude. To avoid overrepresenting frequently posting individuals, only the top 10 most-viewed images per user were used. Images were also reviewed to ensure no duplicates posted by the same user would be included.

Using ArcGIS, the 334 images posted by 104 visitors were separated into those taken in day-use areas, remote areas, and those taken in summer, autumn, winter, and spring. Categories were created to classify each image, and each image could have multiple categories such as glacier, people present, trails, activity, and number of people. Specific variables such as snow, storm, sunny, mammals, birds, native flora, and more were combined to represent different ecosystem services such as aesthetic, existence/biodiversity, provisioning, geological, culture, heritage, or recreation. SPSS was then applied using an exploratory categorical principal component analysis, where the relationships between categorical variables were analyzed. These results were then compared with 12 locations outside the park where Flickr images were also analyzed to assess potential ecosystem services, or benefits that the ecosystem can directly or indirectly provide the visitors. One of the limitations in using Flickr data is that younger and wealthier individuals tend to use Flickr so the photos more likely represent the views and preferences of these demographics.

Added to library on November 21, 2023