Visitors abseil from the top of Table Mountain. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES
Visitors abseil from the top of Table Mountain. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES

Table Mountain National Park has a problem‚ and Instagram is the unlikely solution.

Much of the park’s 221km² is freely accessible‚ making it difficult to estimate the number of visitors and assess how they spend their time. But Finnish researchers have discovered that Instagram posts are an accurate proxy‚ especially in a large park such as the one that surrounds Cape Town.

A team from the University of Helsinki evaluated the usefulness of Instagram‚ Twitter and Flickr in estimating visitor numbers at 21 national parks in SA and 35 in Finland.

"We found that the visitor rates and the popularity of the park extracted from social media data closely followed the official visitor statistics. However‚ Instagram clearly worked the best‚" lead author Henrikki Tenkanen wrote in the journal Scientific Reports.

The researchers said Facebook was not included in their work because access to its data was limited.

Although Instagram proved most useful‚ combined data from all three platforms was even better — mainly because it was more voluminous.

"On the other hand ... platforms are used differently according to the users’ needs or behaviour‚" said Tenkanen. "They can be used to share everyday activities and experiences [Instagram]‚ thoughts and ideas [Twitter]‚ and/or high-quality professional photographs [Flickr]."

The researchers said their findings showed social media could be used "to assess the intensity of human activities at a global scale‚ to inform spatial conservation prioritisation of protected areas under pressure".