GEOGRAPH SU17: How my capstone MGIS project evolved into a business venture

Summer 2017 Newsletter
Monday, October 2, 2017 - 3:59pm


By Sarah Linden (’13g)
When most people think of geographic information systems (GIS), they think of maps. That’s not necessarily wrong; it’s just incomplete. My professional background demonstrates many commercial applications of GIS. Individuals using current technology also apply GIS in a number of ways on a daily or momentary basis: GIS is represented in the navigation on our phones; it largely powers our cars’ computers (and the future of autonomous driving); it helps us search for that best vacation spot; it even assists us with recommendations through our Facebook profiles. GIS is now a fundamental component of everyday life decisions, whether we notice it or not. GIS will inevitably become even more intimately involved in decision making and confer many benefits for individuals.
So I wondered: could GIS even help individuals plan their future by making their best decisions in advance?
To answer the question, I began with self-assessment. I thought about my own priorities, what mattered most in life—and how they changed all too frequently. I wanted to be able to connect with my best opportunities and scenario, to plan my future with various considerations in mind. I realized that when faced with a transition in life that involves relocating, most of us agree that certain factors take precedence: jobs, schools, family, and cost of living. But what if there were an app that asked those important questions and many others—your favorite landscape, your least acceptable natural disaster, what you like to eat, how you exercise—and then presented you with cities and neighborhoods across the United States that were a perfect fit based on your answers? This concept was the focus of the capstone project for my Penn State Master of Geographic Information Systems (MGIS) degree and finally appeared as a product in the App Store in November 2016. It’s called “(To).”
(To) encourages users to understand and focus on location as a primary component of decision-making rather than an afterthought. No matter one’s life stage or goals, location has a large impact on quality of life. Satisfying an interest in outdoor exercise is obviously place-dependent, but even a financial factor like student loans can prove the importance of place: loan repayment support is available if you know where to look.
(To) currently focuses on opportunities for people pursuing careers in medicine and the many transitions, decisions, and compromises that occur along the way. Future versions will consider a range of career disciplines, and content will grow in all areas of the app. (To) is destined to become an ever more informed platform for better life decision-making. The youngest generation of professionals ascending through the ranks right now understands the valuable role location plays in their lives and will make many choices because of it. (To) is the mobile application that actually helps them do it.
None of this would have been possible without the Penn State online MGIS degree program and the wide-ranging, in-depth educational opportunities that came with it. When I enrolled, my purpose was twofold: first, to advance my foundational understanding of GIS; and second, to accelerate my personal mission focused on bringing the power of location to individuals. I have dedicated my career to helping large companies and nonprofit organizations facilitate decision-making using spatial data. I have worked on applications ranging from planning for new civic developments to using GIS to transform the 2013 National Scout Jamboree for the Boy Scouts of America.
To achieve this, my time at Penn State included electives in areas where I didn’t feel as confident. For example, I took courses in SQL and Python because scripting and queries can advance development quickly. I also worked on building certain basic programming skills to expand my use of toolsets beyond specific platforms. I even took a course in spatial statistics that focused on the use of “R” software for statistical computing (a must-complete for students interested in data science or spatial algorithms).
It was the flexibility to craft my educational agenda based on my aspiration to create an individualized-GIS solution that made my experience at Penn State so influential and life-changing. I wasn’t just planning to transform my life through education, I was actually doing it.
While at Penn State, I was provided access to a range of tools (from open-source software to an influential Esri suite) and surrounded by professors who not only taught me how to use location tools but also encouraged me to contemplate the manifest opportunities they present.
I was challenged to write my own story and drive toward spatial data ideas and solutions unique to me. So, while I enrolled with the intent to further my understanding of the intersection of spatial data and application development, I also achieved a more profound result—a greater understanding of my own future, while helping others in the process.
Since raising sufficient capital, Linden works full time on (To), growing the product with a team of professionals who inspire her daily. If you’d like to learn more, please visit: or find it on the App Store by searching ‘where matters.’