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New urban data science courses and degree offered

City Graphic
Photo by Adrian Schwarz on Unsplash

The United Nations reports that by the year 2050, 68 percent of the world’s population will live in urban areas. Urban spaces become very data-rich environments and as result, there is an increasing need for individuals skilled in harnessing this data to address ongoing challenges often accompanied by urbanization. What is the correlation between the transportation systems and urban development? Can we create digital city simulations to more easily test adding bridges and roadways? How do we address sustainability issues while cities continue to expand?

To fill this knowledge gap, College of Science’s Department of Geography and Geoinformation Science(GGS) offers a new urban informatics minor to provide a computational understanding of cities and explore ways to make these areas more sustainable and livable. Students within the minor explore data-driven problems in urban settings through a combination of social science, data science, and spatial analysis classes. The interdisciplinary education prepares students to work in sought-after careers including urban design, lobbying, and transport planning.

“The pandemic gave us the opportunity to structure our classes a little differently this academic year,” said Department of Geography and Geoinformation Science Chair Dieter Pfoser.

The majority of GGS courses are offered online, yet for those interested in face-to-face classes, 19 percent of students still have some in-person instruction following the safety guidelines set forth by Mason and the CDC.

“Students appreciate the ability to still have some face-to-face interaction and a teaching approach that emphasizes teamwork over exams,” Pfoser added.

Pfoser selected to forego exams in his classes this year and instead place students into teams to study and report on topics of their choice. In his Web Mapping course (GGS 462) one team of students currently studies the correlation between health-related 911 calls and the caller’s socio-economic background. Another team looks at available Arlington, VA wi-fi hotspots data, in partnership with Arlington county, comparing the number of devices connected to each hotspot to that area’s demographics. This web mapping course serves as an elective for the urban informatics minor. Geography students can choose to combine it with their BA/BS degree; however, the minor is open to all Mason students. 

“The students work with real-data sets provided by our partners from Fairfax and Arlington counties, including Fairfax Police and Fairfax Fire and Rescue,” Pfoser said. In his research, he works with his colleague, GGS Assistant Professor Andreas Zufle, on developing an urban mobility model for Washington, D.C. Their goal is to use a mix of machine learning approaches in combination with Agent-Based Modeling to arrive at a better understanding of the mechanics of a city and to provide the necessary knowledge for improving the residents’ lives.

Find out more about the Department of Geography and Geoinformation Sciences and the urban informatics minor.