Modeling Uncertainty

Try talking about data analysis to most people—especially massive amounts of scientific data—and you'll get the glazed-eye look that folks get when they check out of a conversation.

By Melissa Stanz

Jim Fox

CHARTING THE FUTURE. Jim Fox (right), director of NEMAC, shares the GroWNC Preferred Scenario Growth Concept with NEMAC student intern Caroline Ketcham (far left) and UNC Asheville alumna Sealy Chipley.

But not when Jim Fox, director of UNC Asheville's National Environmental Modeling and Analysis Center (NEMAC) talks about it. Fox's energy and enthusiasm make data relevant in ways you'd never imagine. "We are bringing government, private citizens and business together to have conversations about land use, water and other things. Our conversations are not just about data; they are about viewpoints and shared values," he explained.

Fox and his team of scientists, designers, communicators, UNC Asheville alumni and student interns know that data for data's sake doesn't excite most people. Data is but one consideration in the decision-making building blocks process NEMAC uses to solve problems. Other considerations include looking at values and an uncertain future using models. Once all factors are considered, it's time to take action.

"We help groups share viewpoints and take action, accepting responsibility and assigning resources. When we do that, we can really effect change," he said.

Effecting change is what NEMAC is all about. The group collects incredible amounts of scientific data and translates the data into electronic visualizations and computer models.

Why? To help communities make more informed decisions about things that impact quality of life—heady, complex things such as disaster recovery, climate change, water quality, energy conservation and land use planning.

Created in 2003, NEMAC's steady growth is a testament to the staff's expertise and problem-solving capabilities. The growth is also due to increasing awareness of the center's value. There are more than two dozen robust projects completed or in progress now.

"Demand for our services is up because people understand more about us now," noted Fox. "We're also having more success bringing disparate shareholder groups together to work on shared values. What we really do is help people connect the dots."


The Western North Carolina Vitality Index is a recent example of a tool developed by NEMAC that serves many different groups. The index reports on the 27 counties of Western North Carolina. It is used to help protect the region's natural resources, promote healthy growth via development and planning, and preserve the region's heritage and culture. Other uses include helping strengthen public health and improving and expanding the area's economic activity and influence.
"We are conducting scenario planning workshops using the index that takes what we now know and looks at trends that can create new futures. Our objective is to help organizations look at various options and avoid future shock," said Fox.

Originally developed as a WNC Report Card on Forest Sustainability for the USDA Forest Service, this online index morphed into its current iteration through collaboration with the Mountain Resources Commission, the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area and the USDA Forest Service. Fox helped get funding for the project in his role as head of the Technical Advisory Council of the Mountain Resources Commission.

Groups as diverse as Duke Energy, the Asheville Board of Realtors, the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources and the Community Foundation of Western North Carolina are providing additional funding and using the index. NEMAC staff members are currently taking the technology on the road, helping other organizations such as Land-of-Sky Regional Council benefit from the information.

locusThree recent UNC Asheville graduates have capitalized on their internships at the university's National Environmental Modeling and Analysis Center (NEMAC) and are now working at Locus Technologies. Jeff Hicks '08, Marion Wing '10 and Ricky Shriner '12 (right to left) were recruited to work at Locus by Todd Pierce (far left), manager of the company and a former employee of NEMAC. Locus Technologies is a worldwide environmental and energy information management company based in Silicon Valley with a newly opened Asheville office.

Student interns from UNC Asheville are an integral part of the Vitality Index project and many others. Billy Mills is in his second semester as a data system support manager and virtual server intern. He is working to help move NEMAC servers to a cloud platform; he also provides day-to-day IT support.

"It's important that we get to work on live projects, and every staff member treats us with respect as part of the team," he said. "While we do check in, there's an expectation that we work independently, be proactive and solve problems. This directly relates to skills necessary in the work place."

Danielle Betke, another student intern and computer science major, says she has learned more about what she enjoys in a job because she works on many different projects. She hopes to find employment in software or web development after graduation.
"It is incredibly rewarding working for NEMAC. It's an invaluable experience that I will always appreciate," she noted.

NEMAC is currently partnering with the City of Asheville to work with Asheville's historic African-American neighborhoods. The city is planning for the future, looking at transportation and job growth among other issues. To gather input from the people who may be affected, NEMAC staff members are facilitating the workshops and talking with residents. Using NEMAC to conduct these meetings is helping rebuild trust.

GroWNC is one of the latest NEMAC collaborations. It is a listening and planning process in a five-county WNC area that is developing strategies for economic competitiveness and job growth. NEMAC is working in collaboration with Land-of-Sky Regional Council and a planning and design firm to conduct community outreach and map the results.

In an ongoing project called ForWarn, NEMAC collaborated with many partners to create an early warning forest disturbance monitoring system. The collaboration includes the USDA Forest Service's Eastern Forest Environmental Threat Assessment Center, Western Wildland Environmental Threat Assessment Center, NASA, the U.S. Geological Survey and Oak Ridge National Laboratory. The partnership earned a national award from the Federal Laboratory Consortium for Technology Transfer for cross-agency collaboration for efforts on this project.

NEMAC's main office is in Rhoades-Robinson Hall on campus, but the center also has a downtown Asheville engagement site located in the Grove Arcade. Used as a technology showcase, this modern facility includes a video conferencing/virtual meeting space frequently used at no charge by NEMAC partners.

Visit the NEMAC website

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