Using Mobile Device Data to Estimate Visitation in Parks and Protected Areas: An Example from the Nature Reserve of Orange County, California

Document Type


Journal/Book Title

Journal of Park and Recreation Administration


Sagamore Publishing

Publication Date







Measuring and monitoring use levels in parks and protected areas (PPAs) remains an ongoing challenge for managers worldwide. Understanding visitation levels is particularly important as contemporary use trends in PPAs have become increasingly dynamic due to many factors that influence demand, including for example, the popularizing of locations via social media. In this paper, we present a novel, mobile device data analysis approach for understanding use levels in PPAs, measured as vehicle arrivals to formal and informal park entrances. We initiated this research in effort to develop an alternative use estimation technique, particularly in situations where visitors may enter a PPA in a more diffuse manner, via informal entrance locations that are difficult to monitor by conventional direct counting methods. Our approach uses a readily available mobile data analysis platform, Streetlight InSight®, developed for transportation planners that is capable of accessing and processing a vast resource of mobile device data. We tested this approach in a network of urban-proximate PPAs in Orange County, California, via both currently available data processing procedures, and sampling and calibration techniques we developed. Our results compare favorably to available use estimates in the study area that employ standard counting techniques. For example, we statistically compared monthly estimates calculated via the Streetlight model and direct counts at a popular entrance location and found no significant difference. We also examined a time period of a known park closure due to a forest fire event to determine if erroneous data were being collected and estimated use at or near zero. Although our method verification relies mainly on face validity due to limited availability of other use estimates in our study location, our results suggest that acceptable use estimates can be obtained in a wide range of PPA applications. This approach has several substantial advantages to PPA management. First, since mobile data are available, managers can obtain current use level estimates in PPAs with a significantly reduced need for field devices and field staff time and effort. Second, retrospective data back to 2014 are available, making it possible to examine trends over the last several years even if no on-site counts were ever obtained. Last, parks with multiple, diffuse entry locations can be assessed more comprehensively, since locations can be identified and use estimated via a digital mapbased interface.

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