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SIU researcher mines social media for data on eclipse tourism

Stadium crowd watches the total eclipse in 2017.
SIU News

A total solar eclipse is an opportunity to witness one of nature’s greatest wonders, but for a researcher at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, it’s also a chance to study tourism in smaller communities where not much data exists.

Roupu Li, associate professor of geography and environmental resources in the School of Earth Systems and Sustainability, used a small grant from the SIU Foundation to study the issue during the last total solar eclipse to hit the Southern Illinois area in 2017. The work focused on mining social media data to discover patterns.

Li and his students plan to do similar research for this year’s April 8 eclipse, hoping the unusual occurrence of two such events happening in the same area within such a short time frame might make for interesting comparisons in areas such as visitor travel patterns.

Rural and small towns often don’t have very much detailed data on tourists’ behaviors and visitation patterns, and events such as the total solar eclipse can provide a rare opportunity to study it, Li said.

“It makes for a big increase in visitors to the area, and that gives us a special opportunity to look at how people move around and how we can improve services for them,” Li said. “Social media is a great, free way to get data for this kind of study.”

Working with Joseph Kalinz, a master’s student in geography and environmental resources, Li used a $5,000 SIU Foundation research award to employ the Academic Research Access program offered by X, which in 2017 was called Twitter. The program allows academic researchers to retrieve historic data at no cost.

The researchers used programming and spatial analysis software – including Python and ArcGIS – to crunch the data, which included posts, spatial and temporal patterns and attendance at local eclipse-related activities. They also teased out where the tourists had come from, places they stopped at during their trip and visit to Carbondale, and messages they shared about their experiences on the platform.

How they felt about it

Li used more than 500 geotagged tweets from visitors within the geographic study area for the analysis, noting that such messages remained low in number until the day directly preceding the eclipse. Tweeting reached its peak on the day of the eclipse before diminishing rapidly after the event.

“This pattern suggests that most tourists visited the region within a narrow, three-day window centered on the event,” Li said. “On most days, evenings witnessed the highest volumes of tweets, suggesting active evening gatherings among those spectators.”

Of the 503 tweets analyzed, the vast majority displayed positive or neutral sentiments about the experience. About 9% of the tweets expressed highly positive sentiments, including one with a tourist tweeting a picture with the accompanying message: “This place is pretty awesome. Taken a couple of minutes before things went dark @ Blue Sky Vineyards.”

The researchers categorized another 90% of the tweets as neutral or slightly positive, while just two tweets carried negative sentiments, including comments on the high heat and humidity during the August 2017 event, and traffic problems.

Where they watched

The researchers also spatially analyzed where the platform users were located during the event, identifying seven “clusters” of eclipse-watchers: Blue Sky Vineyard, Walker’s Bluff Vineyard, downtown Carbondale, the SIU campus, the Rainmaker Art Studio in downtown Makanda, the city of Herrin and the village of Goreville.

“These locations were often associated with total solar eclipse events, such as the Moonstock Music Festival held at Walker’s Bluff, the spectator event hosted at Saluki Stadium on the SIU campus and a similar event at Blue Sky Vineyard,” Li said. Tourists also frequented restaurants in Marion and the University Mall in Carbondale.

Where they came from

By analyzing the platform profiles, the researchers found the majority of eclipse tourists in Southern Illinois had traveled from the Chicago area. A large number also came from Nashville (Tennessee) and St. Louis, indicating future advertising campaigns should focus on key cities to attract tourists.

While none of analysis identified users, the researchers were able to gain detailed insights into their arrival and departure times, accommodation choices, dining and shopping habits, and overall experiences. Such data could be used to assist the region in enhancing its tourism infrastructure and maximizing economic advantages for the upcoming April 8 eclipse, Li said.

“We found some interesting facts about those tourists, such as where they came from and when they visited various places in the region,” Li said. “Much of what we found could be used to inform the preparation for this year’s eclipse.”

Tim Crosby — engineering, science and agriculture.

SIU News is produced by University Communications and Marketing - 618-453-2589. Twitter: @SIUCNews
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