This article is part of a series on the value that open data can add to educational curriculum, specifically at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Design. In part 2, we covered how open data can help urban planners contextualize a project.


In 2013, a devastating flood in Calgary, Alberta forced 110,000 people out of their homes and resulted in five deaths. It caused approximately $400 million in infrastructure damage and $1.7 billion in insured property damage.

As part of Penn’s “Land Use and Environmental Modeling” course, Master’s of Urban Spatial Analytics (MUSA) students Simon Kassel, Madeleine Helmer and Gavin Taves used Calgary’s open data to make predictions about where it’s likely to flood again. With their model, they were able to make a prediction for 95.5 percent of Calgary and accurately predicted 72.9 percent of flooding in those areas.

Predictive models like these can help guide cities’ infrastructure plans to mitigate future flood risks.

“I was interested in the visual aspect of it…in mapping, visualising data,” Kassel said.  “Once I got to Penn, I really became a lot more aware of the ability to dig deeper into data and pick up patterns…and build real intelligence from it.”

The MUSA program essentially trains students on the skills needed to show urban organizations where to best allocate resources. Their analyses could guide a for-profit where to open a lucrative coffee shop, or a nonprofit on how to best spend its fundraising money to positively impact residents. Using the same data that potential employers use makes students invaluable right after graduating, says the program’s director, Ken Steif.

How Open Data Enhances Curriculum

Locally, the Pennsylvania Spatial Data Access (PASDA) has provided GIS data from across the state for more than a decade, with the Philadelphia’s Office of Innovation and Technology contributing datasets. In 2011, Philadelphia city government formally committed to open data through an executive order, with many other cities taking on a similar goal.

But before open data was as ubiquitous across cities nationwide, Steif says city planners often had to sign immense data-use agreements that barred its use in classrooms.

“When I used to teach this class I used to simulate data and make up the data just so I could teach the approach,” Stief said. “But now, when the data’s open, you actually have this beautiful resource that you can use directly in the classroom.”

Steif’s classes often have students download a city’s data and work through an exercise together, then recreate an analysis in another city. If cities have the same type of datasets, what helps one city could help another. To this end, the students designed their predictive flood model to be reapplied elsewhere.

Kassel saw enthusiasm grow for open data  during his graduate education, and noted “cities’ potential to make even more data public will make that [educational] experience just that more rich.”

His experience seems to have served him well – since this interview, he’s become an analyst with Azavea, the civic technology firm that helped develop

At the MUSA program, Steif says they “try to train the next generation of civic technologists to use this data to help governments make better decisions.”

“I’ve been doing it long enough to have instances where a student comes in and doesn’t know anything about this,” professor Steif said. “By the end of one semester — three months — they’re like, ‘I want to do this for the rest of my life,’ which is awesome. When you inspire someone to do something like that, that’s the best feedback you can get.”


Featured Photo: The results of MUSA student’s predictive flood inundation model.