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Climate Unit Director Profile: Catherine Oldershaw


We’re on a continuous quest to determine how we can best meet the needs of our customers while simultaneously continuing to work on projects that benefit our world and further enrich our team. In order to meet this need, we’ve developed a new internal structure that splits our projects into three relative categories called “business units”: Aerospace, Federal, and Climate. In this blog series, we’ll be profiling the new directors of each of these units to provide a full picture of how we’re gearing up to make the biggest possible impact in 2024. 

What is a business unit (BU), and what do the BU Directors do? 

Business Unit Directors (BUDs) at Element 84 lead and manage related subsets of the organization’s projects. The BUDs’ primary focus is to strengthen the support clients receive and to ensure our project, technical, and team goals are met. As mentioned above, the business units are designed mainly for internal organization, and to ensure that our clients are matched with teams of experts that most closely align with the goals of their particular project needs. In the case of the Climate unit, the team’s expertise includes issues relating to water, wildfire response, and infrastructure. 

Getting to know Catherine Oldershaw, Climate Adaptation Business Unit Director 

Catherine standing under a projection of a slide that reads "4 ways to achieve simplicity".
Catherine presenting her talk “The Urgency of Simplicity” at the 2023 Foss4g-NA in Baltimore, MD.

Q: Can you share a bit about your professional background? How did you find yourself in the BUD role? 

Catherine: I’ve always been really interested in the intersection between people, the environment, and technology, but I wasn’t always sure how to combine those interests. I started by studying Anthropology, and then began working for a small start-up when I graduated. There, I learned that design might be the field I was actually looking for. More specifically human-centered design, which focuses on how people interact with systems and services, and shapes those systems and services to better serve people. Once I discovered that kind of design, that’s where I focused. I went to graduate school where I studied human-centered design with a focus on sustainability. After that, I was really fortunate to start working at MAYA design which was at the forefront of human-centered design since it emerged as a field.  

I spent the next 7 years in design agencies focusing on strategy, and began to lead design teams, and then design departments. I wanted to focus as much of my work as possible on civic and climate-related issues which was what drew me to Azavea, a Philadelphia-based geospatial software firm. I was the Design team Manager at Azavea when Element 84 acquired it, and loved leading that department. When the role of Climate Director opened, the position felt like the ideal way to continue leveraging design and technology to make an impact on climate-related issues.

Q: What makes you particularly excited about this new structure and your role? 

Catherine: What makes the structure exciting is that everyone in the unit is focused on similar projects, which allows us to deepen our expertise and therefore increase our impact. Everyone across the company is extremely talented, but within each unit we’re passionate about the same things. Already this brings focus and cohesion to our projects, and I’m excited to see the impact that brings to our clients, and the users of the technology we build. 

Q: What does it mean for Element 84 to have a business unit expressly focused on Climate?

Catherine: I think it is one way of letting our clients know that we’re moving in the same direction they are. Our clients care deeply about tackling climate change, and so do we. That impact can be in a range of domains within the umbrella of Climate; within our unit we have experts in wildfires, algae blooms, and disaster prevention all of which are very different. But there is this shared passion for working alongside scientists to make complex information more accessible and actionable. Sometimes the tools we build are for experts and sometimes for everyday people, but, either way, the goal is to help people do more with impactful data that’s already available. 

Q: Why is Climate a priority for Element 84?

Catherine: The climate crisis is accelerating. We see an increasing need for work around climate mitigation with a focus on adaptation strategies. We care about our planet, and want to be the people making positive change happen. There is a big equity piece here as well; especially when it comes to focusing attention on disadvantaged communities who disproportionately bear the brunt of the impact of climate change. We see immense potential for technology to aid in helping decision makers in making more informed, more equitable choices, and we have expertise in this work.

So, part of the urgency is the acceleration of climate change, but also our desire to apply strategies we’ve seen work. For example, we’ve been working with the Philadelphia Water Department for years on their stormwater credit program, and have become considered a global leader in stormwater credit implementation. Our work with Stroud Research on Model My Watershed has also been well-recognized and we hope solutions like that can continue to scale to match the needs we see emerging. 

At the end of the day, we want to see governments and organizations respond to climate-related crises faster, and we’re prepared to jump in aiding with prediction, strategy development, and recovery to make that happen. 

Q: What types of projects are you most excited to tackle in this new role? 

Catherine: I’m especially excited about projects that bring together the most advanced technology and simple interfaces that enable users to take action. One area like that is in water quality monitoring – which is going to be increasingly important as climate change disturbs natural ecosystems. We have expertise in using hyperspectral imagery, and I’m eager to watch us continue to apply that expertise to a variety of environmental issues. 

There are so many other types of projects I’m eager to take on – leveraging our expertise in stormwater management, watersheds, and water boundary management are all top of mind. I’m also personally very interested in the coastal resilience space and disaster preparedness space. 

That said, the team also loves diving into the entirely new challenges our clients bring to us, so we would be just as excited to dive into a new domain as one where we’ve developed solutions already.

Q: How does this unit fit in with the other business units? 

Catherine: While our Aerospace Unit is primarily commercial focused and the Federal Unit is designed for government work, the Climate Unit is poised to tackle work falling under any sector that focuses on climate work. Although we’re excited about using the business units to subdivide our work internally, our main focus is finding the team that is best suited to tackle each of our client’s unique projects – regardless of how well it aligns with this business unit structure. We’re excited to facilitate collaboration between all of our business units to reach the desired result. 

To dive into an example of a project conducted within our Climate Unit, learn more about our work on a landslide tracking decision support tool. If this type of problem-solving work is exciting to you, our team is here to chat! You can reach us on our contact us page, and we’ll be in touch soon.