Courtney Claessens: “It’s incredibly important that we stay humble in the kind of work we do”

Courtney Claessens
Courtney Claessens
Courtney is a product manager at the Canadian Digital Service. Before joining the public service, she worked at Esri building products to connect local governments and their communities using open data. She has a BA in Urban Systems and GIS from McGill University. She lives in Ottawa and is moderately active on Twitter.

Courtney was interviewed for GeoHipster by Atanas Entchev.

Q: How did you get into GIS?

A: Growing up I was enamoured with big cities (living in the suburbs where they’re just out of reach will do that) and was glued to the computer (see: suburbs). I took an elective geography class in high school because it had an urban geo unit, and that’s where I learned about GIS. We used ArcView 3. I remember creating shapefiles of the neighbouring plaza’s building footprints and mapping the GPS points of garbage. I loved the mix of art and science that GIS brought — the data collection, analysis, and communicating information in a clear and appealing way. It was a way I got to flex whatever creativity or eye for design I had while being rooted in science, which was typically more of my strong suit. I also got to be on the computer, so, bonus! My first GIS map is still kicking around in my dad’s basement somewhere. It’s not The Garbage Map, but it is definitely a garbage map.

I was amped to learn more in university and dive deeper into urban applications of GIS. I wanted to be a transportation planner but got wooed by the open government data movement that was taking off, and that set my course.

Q: You currently work for the Canadian Digital Service. What is the mission of the Service, and what do you personally do there?

A: The Canadian Digital Service uses digital skills and knowledge to make it easier for people to access and use government services. We partner with other federal departments and work to improve the services they provide Canadians, and while doing so we’re sharing with our colleagues a different way of working in government – a way that’s open, interdisciplinary, and puts the user first. We’re trying to make everyone’s day a little bit easier.

I’m a product manager, so I work on a delivery team of designers, researchers, and developers, and engage with partners across government to make sure the right thing gets built at the right time. It’s a lot of different hats.

Q: The Canadian Digital Service job recruitment page says the Service is looking for candidates who “Are curious, and your humility helps you learn and grow.” Humility in a job posting! This is so wonderful. If I were younger, I would totally apply.

A: Yeah! The team really is fantastic. I think it’s incredibly important that we stay humble in the kind of work we do, especially when we’re the new kids in town and we’re working with public servants that have been doing this hard work for years. We’re not sweeping into departments and shaking them up, but aiming to empower folks who have been moving to work in a more modern way all along. I feel incredibly supported as an individual working at CDS, but I don’t feel like it’s really about us in the end. I’d encourage anyone who wants to tackle some big issues for the greater good to apply–we’re looking for roles across the organisation and you don’t need to be Canadian.

Q: Prior to your current position you worked at Esri DC, where you focused on ArcGIS Open Data. Was that big / open geodata, or just data?

A: It was just data. ArcGIS Hub (née Open Data) supports both spatial and non-spatial data, though of course the majority of datasets people published were spatial — raster or vector. I think that’s mostly of a function of it being Esri but also that the majority of data out there has a spatial component.

Q: Is spatial still special?

A: I’m not sure spatial is inherently special, but local gov GIS teams are incredibly well equipped to spearhead a city’s open data strategy and open data services. They hold a ton of data, and we’ve seen more GIS folk use their data to tell stories and share information rather than simply sharing shapefiles — they’ve moved beyond reaching only the civic hacker or data journalist. Your average person on the street doesn’t care what a shapefile is. Lots of people just want to know if they’re buying a home in a safe area and to make sure their kid can walk to school without a high chance of getting run over. Having those kinds of geo-infomediaries that put insights beside data empowers more users to make decisions and insights of their own.

Over my four years at Esri we saw incredible information resources emerge from what started as simple open data sites. Some of Esri’s users went from being GIS analysts at their local government to being the city’s Chief Data Officer, others have developed partnerships with Waze, others are engaging with schools and showing students the value of open data. GIS shops can really open the door to greater public uses and applications of information beyond just sharing data.

Q: Tell us about life after Esri.

A: Life after Esri was tough at first. Leaving Esri was tough. It took a long time to feel comfortable and productive at my first long-term job out of university, which I imagine a lot of young women in tech can relate to. I had established relationships, a community of practice, and a reputation, and then I took a leap and moved to a new city to start a new job in a new field where I didn’t have any of that. So it was a bit of a lonely reset. The first few months were challenging and scary and uncomfortable, but I need to feel challenged and scared and uncomfortable in order to grow, and I don’t regret it. Plus my rent is cheaper.

I miss geography, GIS, and DC’s incredible geo community. Twitter provides me an endless stream of geo FOMO.

Q: What drove you to come work in the US? What drove you to return to Canada?

A: Both times were for jobs; I’m very lucky I could pick up and move like that. I attended the 2014 OpenStreetMap conference in DC and met people from Esri which led to the move south of the border. It was the best thing I could have done at the time and I didn’t think twice about it.

During my time in DC I was introduced to 18F and the United States Digital Service, and then gradually followed Canada’s growth into digital government — Code for Canada forming, the province of Ontario hiring a Chief Digital Officer and creating the Ontario Digital Service, and then the Canadian Digital Service being born. I wanted a closer look at how government works and it’s an exciting time to work in digital government in Canada. It’s also great to be back closer to my family and to have real winters again.

Q: PBR features regularly in your Instagram feed. Also bikes. Any other hipster attributes we should know about?

A: Ha! Damn, outed. In my defense, PBR is a fine dock beer and we recently got out of dock season here in Ontario. Back in DC my pal Max hosts an annual hipster triathlon: swim 20 laps of a public pool, run around a track for a while, then bike to a brewery wearing funny clothes. I loved it. Other than that, I don’t think about what it means to be a hipster or what hipster attributes are. Maybe that makes me one. Whatever.

Q: Canadians are nice and generous. What else are they?

A: I struggle a bit with defining Canadian identity because It’s filled with so many different types of people from different geographies. I think Canadians have a witty, satirical, sometimes dark sense of humour. We are incredibly diplomatic and while polite, our politeness is often just a way to mitigate our fear of confrontation, and sometimes that turns into passive aggression. We have great musicians that we’re fiercely defensive of. We get excited when anything Canadian appears in American pop culture and we take the jokes in stride. We have parental leave!

We also have our fair share of hate crimes and racist harassment, a version of Breitbart, a history of Indigenous genocide that still carries through to today, and a white nationalist running for mayor of the largest city in Canada. That’s harsh, but I feel Canada is frequently cast in this utopian light where the only news is a deer strolling in a Tim Hortons drive-thru. It’s a mix of good and bad. It’s like any place. 

I often pass this book in the window of a local bookstore, and I think it sums it up:

Q: Are you a geohipster? Why / why not?

A: I’ll hang onto whatever variation of geographer identity I can get nowadays.

Q: On closing, any words of wisdom for our readers?

A: If you’re wavering about moving to a new place where you don’t know anyone, just go for it, especially if you’re young. As my new coworker Lyn says, what’s the better story when you’re eighty?

Also, here is my favourite song that features map projections:

*The irony of this video not working in Canada is not lost on me.