Stock image of a lion in a field

A new tool which helps track real-time online interest in biodiversity could help conservation charities to target advertising towards a particular species. Image © Danilo Farias/Shutterstock.

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Monitoring changes in Wikipedia pageviews could help save wildlife

Real-time tracking of online interest in biodiversity can help environmental charities develop effective strategies to aid conservation.

Scientists have developed an ambitious new tool which monitors the monthly changes in Wikipedia pageviews for thousands of species.

Monitoring changes in how people view the natural world could prove invaluable in gaining support for tackling the biodiversity crisis.

Many current metrics that monitor these changes are not published in real-time, often due to a lack of resources. This often limits the response of nature organisations and science communicators to the most up-to-date trends relating to biodiversity.

But now researchers have developed a new tool called the Species Awareness Index (SAI), which can track the real-time rate of change in online biodiversity awareness.

The index looks at the monthly change in average daily page views for around 40,000 species across 10 of the most popular Wikipedia languages.

Dr Joseph Millard, a data scientist and computational ecologist at the Museum and a senior author of the study, says, 'Changes in people's awareness of biodiversity has been mainly tracked through surveys.'

'More recently, there's been a push to think about whether there are ways that we can use online data to get an understanding of a larger sample of people.'

'Initially, we created the index as a static measure for changing interest between 2015 and 2020. But we had the idea to develop this metric to update automatically each month to capture that data in real-time.'

The study has been published in Conservation Biology

The homepage of wikipedia featuring an article on the mangrove swallow

Wikipedia is the world’s largest free online encyclopaedia, with over 100 million registered users. Image © Casimiro PT/Shutterstock.

How can online interest be tracked?

Wikipedia is the world’s largest free online encyclopaedia with over 100 million registered users and published in 333 languages. In March 2023, the platform boasted a staggering 26 billion pageviews for the month.

The Species Awareness Index monitors pageviews for around 40,000 species on Wikipedia under reptiles, ray-finned fishes, mammals, birds, insects, and amphibians. It then calculates the average daily pageviews for each month.

The index measures the rate of change in pageviews for a species rather than overall pageviews to account for the differing popularity of certain species, so highly viewed species such as elephants and lions do not skew the data.

Each species page was also adjusted to account for the background changes in the popularity of Wikipedia. For example, if pageviews for lions go up, it might be that people are becoming more interested in lions, or it might be that Wikipedia has just become more popular.

Researchers say the methods behind the SAI were heavily inspired by the Living Planet Index (LPI), which tracks changes in vertebrate population size over time.

'Our idea for the SAI was to create a Living Planet Index but for Wikipedia', explains Joseph. 'In the LPI, you have each individual vertebrate species, and you track their change in population at a particular location, and then you take all of the population changes, and you aggregate them as a single trend.'

'We do a similar sort of thing with Wikipedia where each page is viewed as an individual entity in each language, similar to population size. You then look at the number of times each page has been viewed and then aggregate them together.'

Currently, the SAI reports results broadly for reptiles, ray-finned fishes, mammals, birds, insects, and amphibians, but the researchers have hopes that with more funding, the index can be developed further to show results for individual species and incorporate data from multiple online sources.

A diagram showing how the data can be applied using the example of bumblebees

Organisations can use the Species Awareness Index to help target conservation efforts. Image © Johnson et al. 2023

Why is tracking changes of interest in biodiversity important?

In 2010, the Nagoya Protocol was adopted in Japan at COP10, outlining five strategic goals to tackle the biodiversity crisis. This document contained the Aichi Biodiversity Targets, which comprised 20 targets to help achieve these goals by 2020.

The first of these targets was to make more people aware of the value of biodiversity and the steps they can take to conserve it, highlighting the importance of behavioural change to address the drivers of biodiversity loss.

The new target helped spur interest in developing methods to monitor how and why people's attitudes toward biodiversity are changing.

These tools can help scientists better understand how, for example, interest in nature changes according to the season, how viral videos on particular animals affect people’s opinions, or how significant world events such as the COVID-19 pandemic affect biodiversity interest.

This type of monitoring has also helped to gather information on wildlife-associated recreational activities, such as ecotourism, and has revealed online patterns of the wildlife trade that can help develop targeted strategies for conservation.

But monitoring changes in a more timely manner can bring additional benefits.

'Being able to see in real-time how a population's interest in biodiversity is changing can help organisations make conservation management decisions on the basis of those changes.' says Joseph.

'You can't do this if the data is static. If the data only goes up to 2020, conservation organisations can't really do anything with that because it's already out of date.'

'But if, for example, you see in real-time that there is a growing interest for bumblebees, perhaps driven by a viral video, conservation charities could then make a deliberate effort to increase advertising to help protect that species.'