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Guest Column: A perfect fit in a unique urban informatics program

By Cal Coplai

As a data scientist for Ford Motor Company’s smart mobility division, I work at the intersection of urban planning, strategic consulting, and data analytics. But I would have not landed this job if it weren’t for the knowledge I gained through the MS in Urban Informatics program at Northeastern University.

Let me explain.

As I neared graduation from my Bachelor’s degree at Michigan State University in 2014, I was faced with the dilemma of working for a while or going straight to graduate school. As an urban and regional planner with a minor in philosophy, I took several law courses and specialized in sustainability. This seemingly disparate mix of coursework was infinitely interesting, but it did not leave me with a clear path.

I ended up joining a small consulting firm in Lansing, MI, focusing on community and economic development projects. I worked with a variety of clients—from local governments to state agencies, nonprofits, universities, business incubators, and more—on strategic analysis to help these organizations make better decisions and have a positive impact on the quality of life of their constituents. I gained experience completing complex analyses and I grew fond of this tangible “make an impact” kind of work.

The more I thought about it, the more this intersection between urban planning and analysis work felt like the perfect fit for me. After doing some research, I found many urban planning and analytics graduate programs, but hardly any that focused on both. That’s when I stumbled across Northeastern’s MS in Urban Informatics, a program that could give me the more targeted technical skills I was looking for while also focusing on the challenges of the built environment.

My first semester was a trial by fire: I was a non-programmer in a very technical program. I completed the courses remotely while working fulltime as a data analyst for the City of Kalamazoo, MI, and I found the program to be challenging and targeted. Its dual focus on urban theory and data analytics is truly unique.

I ultimately finished my coursework with a final research practicum focused on predicting business failure through the use of local government administrative datasets. For example, I wanted to analyze if a business with multiple code enforcement violations—or some other kind of administrative indicators—was more likely to go out of business than businesses without such issues. This problem was one that arose through my work in Kalamazoo and I was able to apply many of the principles I had gained through my studies.

During my final semester in fall of 2017, I secured a job as a data scientist within Ford Motor Company’s smart mobility division near Detroit, MI. Today, I work on cutting edge issues such as how the evolving transportation and mobility landscape impacts cities, people, and the built environment. I am directly embedded within Ford’s City Solutions Group, a new business unit dedicated to understanding city mobility challenges and developing new solutions to these problems. My role is the perfect intersection between urban planning, strategic consulting, and data analytics. Looking back on the potential routes I could have taken, I’m grateful I ended up at Northeastern, which gave me the ability to tackle urban planning problems with a data scientist’s toolkit at my disposal.

Cal Coplai is a city analytics consultant in Ford Motor Company’s smart mobility division. He completed his MS in Urban Informatics from Northeastern University in fall of 2017. He is also an AICP-certified urban planner and received his BS in Urban & Regional Planning from Michigan State University in 2014.


Published On: March 6, 2018 |
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