RENCI opens doors at Grove Arcade to help educate public and decision-makers

Walking through the Renaissance Computing Institute's new Engagement Center at the Grove Arcade feels a lot like touring NORAD, minus the nuclear-war part. The ultra-high-tech displays, including wall-sized plasma computer monitors and a Geo Dome (sort of a mini Imax) show maps and computer models of, among other things, weather events, drought-prone areas and projections of future sprawl.

Right before your eyes: Geospatial Analyst Jeffry Hicks shows off the wall-sized touch-screen display where RENCI converts data into visual models. Photo by Jonathan Welch

At the ribbon cutting ceremony on Oct. 1, a who's-who of local and North Carolina leadership — including Asheville Mayor Terry Bellamy, UNC Asheville chancellor Ann Ponder and UNC President Erskine Bowles — praised the center.

RECNI at UNC Asheville is the western arm of the Chapel Hill-based, grant-funded organization that uses data, often collected by partners like the National Climatic Data Center or the UNCA-based National Environmental Modeling and Analysis Center, and turns them into easily digestible computer illustrations. The Engagement Center is the group's attempt to get the results in front of more Western North Carolina residents, including local leaders. The group operates on campuses across the state, and other engagement centers are open in locations such as UNC Chapel Hill and Duke University.

"What we are doing is trying to address social issues we are all trying to discuss," said RENCI head Jim Fox. "We want to provide these tools to decision makers."

From flood data to agricultural trends to the effect of power plants on local water supplies, it's all on display. Want to see what sort of flood event can be created by development in certain areas? It's right there in front of your eyes.

And being able to see how different data interact helps provide a clearer understanding of the consequences of decisions. "You can't just address flood mitigation and talk about the economic drivers," Fox said.

Acknowledging that statewide budget issues have resulted in cuts to the UNC system, including the removal of UNCA's Environmental Quality Institute in July, Ponder said the opening was a crucial one to the community.

"We are choosing to do this because it is so important," Ponder said. "To avoid disasters, to make development better and to improve health and wellness."

The opening of the center is part of an agreement between UNCA and the city, which owns the Grove Arcade. Prior to the opening, Ponder and Bellamy signed an expanded agreement that calls for collaboration on a wide range of issues, from sustainability to public safety.

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