UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — More and more companies are using location data from devices like smartphones and tablets to gain insights into choices consumers make. As the volume and complexity of location data increases, the demand for the professionals with the technical skills to leverage the data is also increasing.

A new degree from Penn State, the Master of Science in Spatial Data Science, aims to address that growing need.

The degree is being offered exclusively online through Penn State World Campus, the University’s highly ranked online campus. The faculty from Penn State’s renowned Department of Geography in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences will teach the courses and advise students in this new program.

Applications are being accepted for admission in Penn State’s spring 2021 semester, which begins in January.

Anthony Robinson, an associate professor of geography and the director of online geospatial education programs at Penn State, said there is an increasing understanding that the location component of data is crucial to leverage. 

“Location is not just another column in a database,” Robinson said. “It provides connotations about policy and culture, economic disparities, all types of things that are geographic in nature. We are requiring students to dive into domains and apply data science in a geographic context.”

Students will take courses in programming, computer science, and spatial data science. 

Robinson said a key part of the program for students is learning to customize mapmaking software to resolve a need that generic solutions cannot address. 

For instance, he said, a government agency may need a mapping dashboard that visualizes hospital and COVID-19 testing data to share with the public, the media, lawmakers, or other stakeholders. The data to populate the dashboard would come from different sources and need to be fused together to make it visually effective.

Robinson said the mapping products available on the market now will not fulfill current needs like this on their own. He said the industry needs creative solutions that can be designed and developed by those with technical expertise and skills in spatial data science.

“In the mapping sciences, we’ve gotten good with addressing problems that exist,” Robinson said. “Industry and research needs focus on what happens if we don’t already have an existing tool, so we’re trying to fill that gap. It's clear that people who are capable of modifying and creating new map solutions are in very high demand.” 

Robinson said the curriculum will evolve as the needs evolve, too. 

To graduate, students will choose between completing a scholarly paper or, if they plan on pursuing a doctoral degree in the future, a master’s thesis.

Students can customize the master’s degree with a graduate certificate from the geospatial education portfolio. They can choose, for example, a graduate certificate in geospatial programming and web map development or one of the certificates in remote sensing, geospatial intelligence, or geographic information systems.

The new master’s degree in spatial data science continues Penn State’s long tradition of offering cutting-edge geospatial information education online to serve the industry’s needs and advance research in the field. When Penn State World Campus opened in 1998, one of the first academic programs available was a certificate in geographic information systems.

“Penn State has been a leader in geospatial education for more than 20 years, and the master’s in spatial data science program teaches the analytical and programming skills very much in demand today,” said Traci Piazza, director of academic affairs at World Campus. “We’re excited to open this program and provide access to anyone in the world.”


Photo credit: Eric Whittington