Advances in computing power, mobile technology and data storage have resulted in an ever-increasing volume of information about every aspect of human existence on the global internet. While unscrupulous use of such information for nefarious political gains has made the headlines, if carefully sieved and analyzed, these data can also be mobilized for public good, promoting wellbeing and tackling the ongoing climate and biodiversity crises. Digital traces of people’s behaviors, attitudes and interests are abundant on the internet, and such information can yield fascinating insights into every aspect of human culture, including interactions and attitudes toward nature and conservation. A special section in the SCB journal Conservation Biology focuses on recent advances in the rapidly developing area of ‘conservation culturomics’ and how they can help scientists to better understand and preserve the natural world.
Culturomics is the name given to the quantitative study of culture, specifically through the analysis of vast quantities of digital information found on websites, social media and other digital platforms. “Every time someone posts a photo of a beautiful landscape on Instagram or tweets about a close encounter with a wild animal, that information can potentially become part of a culturomic analysis. Drawing this information together can help us understand not only the diverse ways in which people from different cultures interact with nature, but also how they feel about different aspects of the natural world and of our efforts to preserve it” explains Professor Richard Ladle of the University of Porto and one of the guest editors of the special section. “Conservation culturomics and closely related areas such as iEcology are in their early days, but have generated great interest and have huge potential to support conservation science and practice. They enable us to explore patterns of human-nature interactions at scales unfathomable only a few years ago”, adds Dr. Uri Roll at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, also a guest editor of the upcoming special section.
“The main aim of this special section was to help researchers overcome the challenges of doing culturomics research – by providing guidelines on issues related to collecting, handling and analyzing data, and by identifying new areas for future research” commented Dr. Ricardo Correia at the University of Helsinki, who is also an editor of the special section. Dr. Correia is also the lead author of one of the featured articles, a state-of-the-art review of culturomic data sources and methods for conservation. Analyzing such data raises some interesting challenges. For example, internet and social media are used unevenly by people across the globe which affects data availability and scope, and conclusions that could be drawn from them. Handling such large volumes of digital information may also necessitate developing automated methods such as automated image or text detection and identification, as highlighted in a study led by Tuomas Väisänen, a PhD student at the University of Helsinki. All such analyses also need to be carried out while addressing privacy concerns and other ethical challenges. “Our research provides clear guidelines on how this could be achieved using the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation as an example” says Dr. Enrico Di Minin, who also contributed to the special issue.
The special section also includes exciting examples of new conservation culturomics applications. For example, a study led by Dr. Ivan Jarić at the Biology Centre of the Czech Academy of Sciences shows how culturomics can be applied to the challenges posed by non-native species. "These approaches offer great promise for a range of applications including tracking and studying invasions, potentially serving as an early warning tool for new introductions, mapping and monitoring the distribution, spread and impacts of invasive species, as well as societal awareness, attitudes and interactions with invasive species" said Dr. Jarić. A contribution by Dr. Juan Li from the University of California Berkeley highlighted how culturomics could help researchers better understand the human dimensions associated with the consumption of illegal wildlife products. Reut Vardi, a PhD student at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev explored public interest in Israeli wildflowers based on data from Wikipedia and Google. "We compared interest in plants in two distinct culturomic sources – Google search volume and Wikipedia pageviews – at a national scale, which allowed us to disentangle important differences in people’s digital interactions with nature across data sources", stressed Ms. Vardi. Another study led by Dr. John Mittermeier at the University of Oxford using Wikipedia highlights how even data originating from the same platform can tell slightly different stories, and thus requires careful consideration during analysis.
The special section also includes examples of how culturomics approaches can create synergies with other established methodologies in conservation. A paper led by Joseph Millard, a PhD student at University College London, proposes a novel method to monitor public awareness of biodiversity over time. “Using an approach inspired by the Living Planet Index, our paper introduces a new way to measure our changing awareness of global biodiversity. Our approach was to treat Wikipedia page views as digital populations, enabling us to track changes in awareness for many wild species”, said Mr. Millard. These studies outline possible ways forward for the increasing integration of culturomics methods in conservation, but also outstanding challenges and areas that require further development. “Conserving the natural world is beset with vast and complex problems, which demand new and creative solutions. Culturomic approaches to the study of human–nature relationships provide one way forward”, says Dr. Correia. “This effort results from the work of the Conservation Culturomics Working Group of the Society for Conservation Biology, and we hope these contributions will stimulate debate and further developments, and also encourage more researchers to join us and engage with this rapidly expanding conservation research area”.
Correia, Ladle & Roll 2021. Special Section: Advancing Conservation Culturomics - Introduction. Conservation Biology. https://conbio.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/cobi.13700
Millard et al. 2021. The species awareness index as a conservation culturomics metric for public biodiversity awareness. Conservation Biology. https://conbio.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/cobi.13701
Mittermeier et al. 2021. Using Wikipedia to measure public interest in biodiversity and conservation. Conservation Biology. https://conbio.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/cobi.13702
Li & Hu 2021. Using culturomics and social media data to characterize wildlife consumption. Conservation Biology. https://conbio.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/cobi.13703
Väisänen et al. 2021. Exploring human–nature interactions in national parks with social media photographs and computer vision. Conservation Biology. https://conbio.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/cobi.13704
Vardi et al. 2021. Combining culturomic sources to uncover trends in popularity and seasonal interest in plants. Conservation Biology. https://conbio.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/cobi.13705
Correia et al. 2021. Digital data sources and methods for conservation culturomics. Conservation Biology. https://conbio.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/cobi.13706
Jarić et al. 2021. Invasion Culturomics and iEcology. Conservation Biology. https://conbio.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/cobi.13707
Di Minin et al. 2021. How to address data privacy concerns when using social media data in conservation science. Conservation Biology. https://conbio.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/cobi.13708