Monitoring nature engagement

Phillips, B.B., Burgess, K., Willis, C. & Gaston, K.J. 2022. Monitoring public engagement with nature using Google Trends. People and Nature, online early.

1. How humans interact with nature affects the health of both people and ecosystems. Yet, long-term data on nature engagement are scarce because traditional survey methods are expensive, time consuming and require commitment over multiple years. Digital data sources (e.g. aggregated data from online searches) have major potential as a supplementary source of information and, in the absence of available data, as a proxy for more direct measurement of nature engagement.

2. Using Google Trends, we created a list of refined and relevant search terms relating to diverse outdoor spaces and activities. We then compared trends in Google search volumes in England across both a 1-year and 10-year period to those from Google Community Mobility Reports, and from nationally representative survey data (Natural England’s People and Nature Survey and the Monitor of Engagement with the Natural Environment).

3. Search, survey and mobility data all support a general increase in public engagement with nature since 2009, and a more substantial increase during, or following, the initial national ‘lockdown’ period of the COVID-19 pandemic in England. Search volumes increased for many urban and rural outdoor green spaces (e.g. woodlands), blue spaces (e.g. reservoirs), exercise activities (e.g. walking, running and hiking) and explicitly nature-based activities (e.g. fishing, wild swimming and encouraging wildlife).

4. Overall, volumes of Google searches were more closely related with longer-term (10-year) trends from survey data, than shorter-term changes during the COVID-19 pandemic. There were statistically significant relationships between search volumes, survey data (self-reported past behaviour) and mobility data (movement trends) for around half of comparisons. Of these, an average of 13–44% of variation in the data was explained.

5. The findings show that Google Trends provides valuable information about public engagement with nature, which can help to supplement existing survey data by providing new insights about behavioural trends. The paper also provides a proof of concept for using Google Trends to understand changes in public engagement with nature, which could be applied to the many countries that lack long-term survey monitoring.