Big Brother–Style Tech Is Helping Hikers Avoid Crowds

When you head out for a hike this summer in many areas in the mountains just east of Seattle, a government-sanctioned program will be watching your Flickr photos and Instagram posts, noting where you’ve been and what you’ve been up to. While this sounds like creepy Big Brother invading your privacy, the researchers aren’t actually interested in you personally.

Instead, they’re training the tools of Big Data on social media in hopes that the information they gather can improve your future visits to public lands.

The program in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest is the first of its kind in the country. Mount Baker-Snoqualmie, which lies on the west side of Washington’s Cascade Range between the Canadian border and Mount Rainier, is one of the most popular national forests in the nation.

Managers already have some useful tools to estimate the use of public lands, such as the National Visitor Use Monitoring Program, which measures use on a broad, often forest-wide scale every five years. But that doesn’t tell managers precisely when hikers and snowshoers were in a particular spot or exactly where they went.

Researchers have counted more than a quarter-million visitors and gathered data from tens of thousands of social media posts from 32 spots within the forest. By using that data and trip reports from the popular Washington Trails Association website, the scientists are creating visitor models that show how many people are using specific trails and when.

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