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A new study shows how anonymized GPS data from people’s smartphones can be used to monitor the use of parks and other green spaces in urban areas, which could help inform their management. Alessandro Filazzola of ApexRMS and the University of Toronto, Mississauga, Canada, and colleagues report these findings in the open access journal PLOS Computational Biology on December 15, 2022.

In urban areas, parks and other green spaces serve several key functions, including promoting human physical and mental health, maintaining ecosystem biodiversity, and providing services such as stormwater management and heat reduction. Human interaction with green spaces affects these functions, but it is difficult to capture human activity at a resolution good enough to inform green space management. Anonymized GPS data from people’s smartphones can help solve this challenge.

To demonstrate such an approach, Filazzola and colleagues analyzed anonymized smartphone data that captured people’s visits to 53 green spaces in the Greater Toronto Area, Canada, including parks, trail systems, and conservation enclosures.

They found that GPS data does provide insight into people’s use of these green spaces, showing, for example, that mobile device activity is strongly correlated with data on people’s park access reservations. The data also showed which areas of green space had more or less human activity, with trails particularly popular. Additionally, greater human presence was associated with certain types of land cover, such as rock formations, as well as certain types of trees.

These findings highlight the potential of anonymized smartphone GPS data to help inform green space management, especially as cities grow around the world. Such efforts can optimize the benefits of green spaces for people while conserving biodiversity.

The researchers note several challenges to this approach, such as the tendency of some people to disconnect from their mobile devices when visiting green spaces and the difficulty of switching between a smartphone inside a green space and a car outside the perimeter. Future research could address these issues and refine the methodology.

The authors add: “Access to parks is important for city dwellers to relax, connect with nature and socialize, but it is difficult to understand how people use these green spaces. Our study uses anonymous mobility data to help shed light on the relationship between people and nature in parks.”


In your coverage, please use this URL to access the freely available article PLOS Computational Biology:

Quote: Filazzola A, Xie G, Barrett K, Dunn A, Johnson MTJ, MacIvor JS (2022) Using smartphone-GPS data to quantify human activity in green spaces. PLoS Comput Biol 18(12). e1010725.

Author countries: Canada

Funding. This research was funded by a postdoctoral fellowship awarded to AF by the Center for the Urban Environment at the University of Toronto and the Canadian School of Cities. GX was funded by an Ontario Graduate Fellowship, Center for Environmental Research Anthropocene Graduate Fellowship, and NSERC CREATE funding (# 401276521) awarded to JSM. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.

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