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WNC Business

Improving community resilience through tech programs

Sep 21, 2023 06:35AM ● By Randee Brown

Currently in its 20th year, NEMAC began as a partnership with NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center (now NCEI). NEMAC initially focused on developing tools and methods to help decision-makers in government, business, and academia access and use NCDC’s vast amounts of climate data, and over time, the program’s mission expanded to include a broader range of environmental data and decision-making contexts and has been self-funded by various projects during its existence.

Dave Michelson, Software Designer for NEMAC, said the program’s projects and clients can vary widely. Though they all center around the idea of resilience in some way, a lot of those resilience ideas center around environmental change. 

NEMAC works with cities and counties to explore vulnerabilities and develop climate resilience plans. Michelson said Asheville was one of the first cities they worked with, and at that time nearly 10 years ago, not many people knew or understood what that meant. They co-developed the ‘Steps to Resilience’ process with NOAA and applied it with the Land of Sky Regional Council and the Triangle Regional Resilience Partnership with six jurisdictions across the Research Triangle, and realized the process is repeatable. 

“At that point, it is technically no longer ‘applied research’; this is something another business can do,” Michelson said. “Other businesses began doing similar work, and our program could not compete with that. Fernleaf is a local startup business born out of NEMAC that developed this idea of creating resilience plans for many municipalities across the Southeast region.”

While a major part of NEMAC’s focus is climate-related, that is not always the case. Michelson said resilience applies to many aspects, and one of those is access to broadband for individuals and businesses which allows people to keep moving forward, regardless of the ability to move around their community. 

“If people are unable to access broadband, there could be vulnerabilities in cases such as a pandemic, or if a road was wiped out in a flood,” Michelson said. “We are figuring out where broadband is lacking and building tools that help communities see where it would be beneficial. Communities are then able to request grants to help install that broadband accessibility for their residents.”

More than developing resilience plans, NEMAC also uses data and science to help clients tell their story. “A lot of scientists use a bunch of acronyms and industry jargon which can sometimes unknowingly alienate people who don’t ‘speak that language’,” Michelson said. “We help our clients translate complicated data and information into layman’s terms so that they can share their information in a usable, understandable, and conversational way. This is tremendously helpful for many situations, including when organizations are looking for grants and funding.”

As a program of UNCA, NEMAC has worked with approximately 200 student interns since its beginning. Michelson said the budget of each project is built to include the hiring of paid interns who have ranged over a variety of majors, and they are doing more than just inputting data.

“They are actively working with us on each project, interviewing people and doing usability studies and making software codes,” Michelson said. “This really helps to jumpstart their career. Almost everyone who works at Fernleaf now was one of our interns at one time. Our hope is they will find what they like to do and learn what they don’t like to do before they even leave college.”

Recently moving a NEMAC office into Hatchworks Coworking in Asheville, Michelson said his personal goal is to develop partnerships with other entrepreneurs in the area. “This is really what applied research should be doing,” he said. “I’d love for our program to spawn 10 Fernleafs.”