Tag Archives: Courtney Claessens

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.

Eight young professionals doing awesome things in geo

by Jonah Adkins [@jonahadkins]

Real talk: I love geo. After 15 years or so in this field, I’m constantly amazed at the work being accomplished by my colleagues. I’m especially inspired by the new class of talent that comes along every few years. Whether it be a thought-provoking tweet, a fresh take on cartography, or niche app that re-defines a previous concept, young professionals are continually improving our field.

In taking a break from our usual long-form interview format, i’d like to introduce you to eight young professionals who inspire me on a regular basis. Each of them brings a unique perspective to geo, and all of them are dedicated to making a difference by having a positive impact on our world. 

I recently asked each of them to tell me about what they love about geo right now, and invited them to share something “cool”.  Some you may already know, some you may not, so here’s a virtual handshake to help introduce them to you.
Eight young professionals doing awesome things in geo | Left to right: Top row: Kitty Hurley, Kelvin Abrokwa-Johnson, Allison Smith; Middle row: Courtney Claessens, Katie Kowalsky; Bottom row: Alex Kappel, Kara Mahoney, Jacqueline Kovarik
Eight young professionals doing awesome things in geo | Left to right: Top row: Kitty Hurley, Kelvin Abrokwa-Johnson, Allison Smith; Middle row: Courtney Claessens, Katie Kowalsky; Bottom row: Alex Kappel, Kara Mahoney, Jacqueline Kovarik

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Kitty Hurley [@geospatialem]

GIS Developer at Minnesota Department of Health

A front-end GIS Developer at the State of Minnesota, Kitty is focused on UI/UX, cartographic design, mobile environments, and web accessibility.  She helps organize Maptime MSP, and is finishing her three-year term on the Minnesota GIS/LIS Consortium’s Board of Directors. In her free time, Kitty hits the ice to play hockey, hikes/snowshoes (depending on the season), loves a good book, and likes to travel the globe.

Cool shareable: Map for the annual Minnesota GIS/LIS Consortium’s conference showcasing hotels, key attractions, and establishments. The 2015 conference was the 25th annual conference held in the beautiful city of Duluth. http://geospatialem.github.io/conference-map/

Kitty says: “There’s so much to learn in the geography and geospatial industries, and so many extremely talented professionals to tap and work with! Broadly speaking, I am trying to be a better cartographer, and I’ve found that working offline has been the best method for me — doodling, coloring, baking, traveling, and even hiking…”

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Kelvin Abrokwa-Johnson [@__klvn__]

Software Development Intern at Mapbox

Currently a junior at the College of William & Mary, where he studies Applied Mathematics and Computer Science. Kelvin is from Northern Virginia, and before that Accra, Ghana.

Cool shareable: I wrote my first real lines of code just over a year ago, and now I hack on all sorts of cool and complex projects! One of them is a scraper for data.openaddresses.io that makes it prettier and searcheable by source name and by country.

http://abrokwa.org/oa-data/

Kelvin says:  “The geospatial field is a great environment for budding software engineers. The open source community in geo is so vibrant and vocal. Everyone is always up to something cool and creative. This is especially true at Mapbox where brilliant minds are pushing the envelope on the state of the art in geospatial technology all the time.”

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Allison K. Smith [@smith_ak1]

Cartographic Technician at Virginia Economic Development Partnership

Allison is a May 2015 graduate from James Madison University and a former intern at the National Parks Service. She spends her free time hiking and trying to figure out how to “adult” (401K? Health Insurance? Taxes???).

Cool shareable: For my Senior Capstone at James Madison University, I created this map that tells the story of a growing industry in the Commonwealth that dates back to the colonial age. It was built using a multitude of different tools: the map itself was built in QGIS and ArcMap, all of the charts were originally built using R, and the stylization and construction of the graphics all took place in Adobe Illustrator.

Virginia is for Wine Lovers: The Virginia Wine Industry

Allison says: “I  love putting interactive GIS in the hands of the user and making geographic data accessible and understandable for everyone to explore. I have started teaching myself the basics of web design in the hope of building some interactive maps and charts of my own someday.”

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Courtney Claessens [@sidewalkballet]

Product Engineer on ArcGIS Open Data at Esri DC R&D Center

Courtney works at Esri where she’s a Product Engineer on ArcGIS Open Data. She works closely with product management, designers, and customers to help guide the product and make sure they’re building something awesome. Before Esri, she studied in Canada at McGill University, where she was introduced to open data through GIS classes and the professors there who are studying how new geospatial tech is altering government – citizen interactions. Courtney is also a co-organizer for Maptime DC, and a co-organizer for HackShopDC.

Cool shareable: These are hand-drawn slides for a hand-drawn Maptime we held at Maptime DC last year. I love getting back to other parts of geography and mapping I don’t come into contact with every day at work, like psychogeography. https://docs.google.com/presentation/d/1-xaa8u8GXAdjOqpCSYBFrGLHkvmTBhTtsNTe2uOWFzM/htmlpresent

Courtney says: “I’m really excited about my awesome coworker Brendan’s map editor, Mundi, and all the potential that comes from it. You sign in with your GitHub account and can search through all the open datasets from ArcGIS, do your simple-but-flexible map styling, and get an output as a gist and an automagically created bl.ock. It also gives you the map styling CSS or JSON, so it’s sweet if you just want to play with styling and plug the bit of code into your own map.”

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Katie Kowalsky [@katiekowalsky]

Cartographer at UW-Madison Cartography Lab

Katie is a cartographer, glasses-wearer, and amateur cheese enthusiast who currently lives in Madison, Wisconsin. She’s finishing her cartography/GIS degree at UW-Madison while working at the Cartography Lab and co-organizing Maptime Madison. She’s a social media nut who helps run several professional map twitters (such as @NACIS & @MaptimeHQ) and loves the cartographic Twitter community.

Cool shareable: This was my first intense D3 map, with a supported graphic and temporal component — so it was a bit daunting given our time constraint, but we made it work! The hardest part of this map was the research required. I didn’t realize how much legal jargon I’d have to learn about in order to assemble all of our data. If it had just been looking at each abortion restriction without a temporal component, that would have been a lot easier, but why would we want that?

yourbodynotyourchoice.github.io

Katie says: “I’ve become quite the tileset evangelist. I think there’s only going to be more growth in people choosing better tilesets or designing their own — which I think is great. I’ve also loved seeing cartographers use this as a sandbox for crazy map ideas and as an exploratory tool. We don’t nearly talk [enough] about the other components to web mapping besides the JavaScript — data and tiles are also important to think deeply and teach about!”

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Alex Kappel [@alex_kappel]
GIS Analyst, the Data Team at @AidData

Alex discovered geo at Clark University while studying Environmental Science. After learning some Python in school, he got the opportunity to intern at Development Seed. Currently he works at AidData, using mainly FOSS geotools producing
geocoded data sets (which hopefully have a positive impact). Based out of the William & Mary office, Alex also gets to work with a lot of students, and is a co-organizer for Maptime Hampton Roads.

Cool shareable: Accessibility is one of the key attributes of ‘open’ data. With this in mind, AidData provides geocoded datasets that lower barriers of entry for end users who want to see who is funding what, and where they are siting their investments. Collectively, this suite of improvements is known as a “Level 1A” data product. All of AidData’s Level 1 geocoded datasets are now accompanied by a Level 1A data product.

http://aiddata.org/blog/making-geocoded-data-more-accessible-introducing-level-1a …

Alex says: “I’m most excited by the imagery tools that DevSeed is building. I had the privilege of working on the first release of landsat-util, and it’s been incredibly exciting to see all of the new tools that the team has put out since: Libra, OpenAerialMap, and new iterations of landsat-util.

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Jacqueline Kovarik [@cartojacqueline]

GIS Developer at Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

Jacqueline is an outdoor enthusiast who’s paired her love of nature and geography in her career as a GIS professional with the MN Department of Natural Resources. While she has recently moved into a GIS developer role, she gets her cartography and design fix by creating hand-made maps. When Jacqueline is not mapping, she is usually hiking, fly-fishing, or kayaking.

Cool Shareable: After creating a mobile data collection app for the MN DNR’s entomologists to track bee species and habitat characteristics in Minnesota, I was inspired to learn about native bees. This map was generated from an evolving dataset of specialist bees and native host plant ranges, courtesy of the University of Minnesota and the MN DNR. The intent of the map is to bring awareness to bee population decline and population diversity, as well as highlight the need for increased data and analysis to facilitate population preservation.

https://drive.google.com/open?id=0B_3RvfE_DjYOUG1XdlhOY090ZmM

Jacqueline says: “I’m excited that cartography, design, and user experience are playing an increasingly important role in web map development. Sharpening my front end development skills to create efficient yet attractive interactive maps is something I’m working hard at right now. Being part of such a creative community of GIS experts is inspiring!”

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Kara Mahoney [@ainulindale]

Developer at Azimuth1

Kara graduated from George Mason University in 2014, studied geography, though somewhere along the way she managed to earn most of the computer science and geology degrees as well (foraminiferal oxygen isotopes are super cool and academic specialization is hard). Currently she works for a small geospatial analytics startup based outside of Washington DC, and her tasks at the moment range from throwing Bash and Python at large unruly datasets, cartographic design, web development, search and rescue related behavioral modeling, ops, keeping their local PostgreSQL OSM database alive, and attempting to bend the Node GDAL bindings to her will for raster processing and modeling in Electron.

Cool shareable: Search & Rescue topographic maps for Washington and Virginia are a sample of trying to improve on USGS maps with OpenStreetMap and supplemental data. Methodology for the SAR map creation can be found at the following link:

https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B-cSmG9OeCyFbDZ2ck9fTC11cDA/view?usp=sharing

Kara says:  “I’m having a lot of fun with designing for WebGL based map rendering, using TileStache for managing and hosting custom tilesets, and Pandas for data wrangling.”

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Whom should we profile in our next “Young professionals doing awesome things in geo”? Send us an email.