What are “Geospatial Technologies?”

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This fall, Urban Studies will offer a new Master of Science in Geospatial Technologies, an emerging field of data visualization and analysis.
A student in the Geographic Information Systems certificate program, with Assistant Professor Matt Kelley (left). This year, Urban Studies will also offer a Master of Science in Geospatial Technologies to build on the work students do in the certificate program.

You might not have ever heard the phrase “Geospatial technologies.” But that doesn’t mean you’re not familiar with it.

“We all benefit from geospatial technologies. It is even built into our smart phones. Think GPS,” says Ali Modarres, director of the Urban Studies program. It can help you navigate a route or find a local coffee shop.

And, over time, the technology can learn to make certain suggestions based on your location. But what if your GPS were subtly influencing your behavior? What if it were programmed to prevent you from driving through certain areas of town or shopping at a competitor’s store?

 “We are sophisticated enough now to ask the next-level … questions. What is the consequence of using this technology?” he says.

Students in the UW Tacoma’s new Master of Science in Geospatial Technologies will not just be learning to develop this technology; they will also think critically about how people use it.

This fall, 20 students from the South Sound and beyond will begin this one-year master’s program, offered by Urban Studies.

“We have had a lot of demand for this [degree],” says Modarres. Master’s degrees in geospatial technologies are rare, and often offered exclusively online. In particular, the UW Tacoma is unique in being one of the few urban-serving institutions to offer this degree.

Students could land jobs in fields from urban planning and development to geology, marketing to ecology, and more.  Many of the jobs graduates will take did not exist 20 years ago.

“This is a discipline that does not sit still. It is constantly changing and growing,” says Modarres.

The program’s graduate faculty will consist of Ali Modarres, Matt Kelley, and two new faculty members: Britta Ricker and Jim Thatcher.

Ricker hails from Simon Fraser University, where her doctoral studies focused on developing technological solutions for social good, from sustainable tourism to public health. Thatcher comes to Tacoma from Clark University, where he researched how these new technologies are changing the way people go about their daily lives and, particularly, how they are changing people’s interactions with the cities where they live. Both are excited to continue their work in Tacoma.

“I am looking forward to learning from my colleagues and students and to developing collaborative projects,” Ricker says. “I hope to apply my knowledge and experience with technology to help answer research questions unique to urban studies.”

“There's a real sense of creating something new with this program, and I consider myself lucky to be a part of it,” says Thatcher.

Together, Ricker and Thatcher received a CyberGIS fellowship from the National Science Foundation to develop curricula for this program.

The Urban Studies program also offers a certificate in Geographic Information Systems, or GIS. The certificate program trains students in how to create visual representations out of layers of data, often in the form of maps. Students don’t just learn to create these maps as an end in themselves, though – they learn to use maps as tools of investigation, to think analytically about the questions they’re researching and the results they find.

This new master’s degree will build upon the foundation students learn in the GIS certificate. (They don’t need to specifically have earned this particular credential from UW Tacoma, though many applicants have.) Students in the master’s program will learn how to build their own software and how to collect and disseminate data.  They will be able to create apps for both Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android specific to particular purposes or that track data particular to an organization. Students will also ask ethical questions about the applications of geospatial technology, putting their work into a greater social context.

Despite the seemingly complex name, in its most basic form, Modarres says, this is a degree in “the application of advanced technologies in decision making.”

In this new master’s degree, “We're emphasizing hands-on, creative uses of technology,” says Thatcher. “Inspiring students to look at geospatial technologies in new ways—to put them to use to help themselves and those around them—is an exhilarating prospect.”

Learn more about the new Master of Science in Geospatial Technologies and other Urban Studies degrees.

Written by: 
Abby Rhinehart / August 1, 2014
Media contact: 
John Burkhardt, Media Relations, johnbjr@uw.edu, 253-692-4536