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How Temple is helping students answer ‘limitless questions’ with geospatial data science

The university’s Geography, Environment and Urban Studies Department has several graduate degree options for people interested in GIS.

Map out a future career in GIS. (Courtesy Temple University Geography and Urban Studies)

This article is sponsored by Temple University Department of Geography and Urban Studies and was reviewed before publication. Temple University Department of Geography and Urban Studies is a Brand Builder client.

An emerging issue in the field of geospatial data science is the imbalance between the abundance of freely available big datasets and the limited number of professionals trained to leverage them, according to Temple University professor Victor Hugo Gutierrez-Velez.

“There are limitless questions we can ask that those pieces of data could help you to answer,” Gutierrez-Velez said. “Geospatial data science is applicable to a variety of interests or backgrounds, including engineering, ecology, archaeology, economics, public health. The use of this information has extended across a variety of sectors that include governments, non-profit organizations and the private sector. It is relevant to  interests in areas such as land planning, sustainable businesses or humanitarian aid among others.”

Gutierrez-Velez is a professor in the Department of Geography, Environment and Urban studies and teaches courses in Temple’s Professional Science Master’s (PSM) in Geospatial Data Science and their PSM in Geographic Information Systems (GIS).

Geospatial Data Science (GDS) is a growing field that aims to translate big geospatial data into spatial information that is useful to society. It harnesses the power of existing big geospatial data to provide answers to a variety of questions that span urban and regional planning, public health, and environmental assessments and monitoring systems among others. GDS is a subdiscipline of Geographic Information Science that integrates location data with descriptive details and connects information to a map. This provides a foundation for analysis and understanding spatial patterns. The field is rich with career opportunities for solutions-oriented students who want to help define answers to society’s pressing questions, Temple faculty say.

Temple’s GIS programs

Temple began offering the PSM in GIS in 2015, and the PSM in Geospatial Data Science was launched in 2020, according to Liz Janczewski, the program’s Student Services Coordinator.

Professor Hamil Pearsall, who previously served as graduate chair in the Department of Geography, Environment and Urban Studies said “that the main distinction between the two PSMs is the geospatial data science program’s focus on advanced statistical methods and computer programming. The field of GIS has been growing a lot over the last decade, and that growth has continued. So we usually emphasize things like job opportunities to prospective students.”

Learn more about Temple’s Geography, Environment and Urban Studies programs

Lee Hachadoorian, the Assistant Director of the PSM programs, told in 2021 that the program is valuable for students who want to pursue machine learning and “big geospatial data and data science type positions.”

The Professional Science Master’s programs in GIS and Geospatial Data Science have graduated 74 students and 96% are in GIS/Data-related positions. According to Janczewski, the PSMs have helped alumni secure jobs at a variety of local employers, including the city’s Office of Innovation and Technology, the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission and Comcast.

Faculty’s GIS research allows for ‘more informed, impactful decisions’

As a remote sensing and land system scientist, Temple professor Gutierrez-Velez has mainly worked in Colombia, where he was born.

He tracks changes to the Earth’s surface using satellite images and combines this data with spatial models to assess the impact of these changes on people’s wellbeing and the environment.

NASA funded Gutierrez-Velez’s biodiversity research. He works with Colombian decision makers and research centers, such as the country’s Ministry of Environment to better inform decisions that protect biodiversity.

“NASA has a program called Earth Action,” that aims to make sure that satellite images are helpful to address some of the biggest challenges that humanity is facing right now,” Gutierrez-Velez said. He listed topics including climate change, biodiversity loss, wildfires, water resource distribution, disaster management and air quality. “I hope that I can provide information so they can make more informed, impactful decisions.”

Fellow professor Pearsall is similarly motivated to pursue GIS research because it’s solutions-oriented.

“I feel like a lot of the social sciences are about defining problems. But with GIS, I feel like we’re kind of flipping that and figuring out solutions to the problems,” said Pearsall, who received her doctorate’s degree in geography from Clark University.

Pearsall has taught at her alma mater and Temple, where she has been a professor since 2012. She has been a Center for Sustainable Communities Faculty Fellow at Temple since 2019.

A couple of years ago, Pearsall began focusing her research on urban infrastructure, particularly its connection to people’s health.

She helped conduct a regional study of the Philadelphia area that found certain neighborhoods house critical infrastructure, such as transportation, but don’t necessarily experience the benefits of it. Her work is typically underlined by questions of environmental justice.

Alongside GIS’s applicability in so many industries come important moral implications, Gutierrez-Velez noted.

“We know that it’s a powerful tool and can be abused and that it’s important that people can use geospatial data in an ethical way, which is one of the elements of the program,” Gutierrez-Velez said. “You can stand out in a very competitive job market with this background, and I think this program offers very appealing opportunities for whoever wants to answer important questions about society.”

Learn more about Temple’s Geography, Environment and Urban Studies programs

Companies: Temple University Geography and Urban Studies / Temple University

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