Volunteer Spotlight: Melissa Swenson


When did you get involved with CEDR?

I got involved back in 2018 when the spontaneous volunteer groups jumped in to help with Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria. I jumped in at Hurricane Maria and as that wrapped up decided to stay and help build the new organization because I could see that there was an opportunity to help feel a gap in the disaster space for an organization like CEDR

What are your activities and what do they involve?
I am the President so I have a very full and varying plate!  On a daily basis, I’m looking at potential events (fires, hurricanes, severe weather) that could impact the public and assessing if we need to change or raise our activation status.  I also help out on social media which is very interesting. It’s also very intense during activation when I have to focus to make sure we’re getting accurate information out to the public quickly. I also work with stakeholders and other groups to see how we can work together to improve our collective response during disasters

What motivates you to stay involved?
What motivates me is seeing that there’s a need for what we do to help fill gaps in the disaster space.  As the pace and intensity of disasters increases, we see a demographic shift where people go to social media first for information. CEDR is there with information on evacuations, links to maps, shelter information and information on recovery resources.  We can also dig into the online nooks and crannies to find sources of information that may not be easy for the general public to find, but finding this information quickly and accurately is important so they can stay safe


Of what contribution or achievement are you most proud?
Most proud.  Oh wow.  I think it’s when I saw a picture of our shelter map on the big screens of FEMA’s NRCC for Hurricane Dorian.  Over 13 days we mapped shelters from Puerto Rico up through Virginia and Maryland and monitored hundred of counties for updates  so to see out shelter map that we shared with the public up on the screen was a huge thrill

In your opinion, what is the most important work that this organization does?
Our most important work is identifying what the public needs and figuring out how to fill the gap.  For the storms in February, for example, potable water was the issue and so we crowdsourced to find water distribution sites.  In the wildfires in the west we recognize that pets large and small are a major concern, so we map shelters for small animals and livestock.  While we have a general idea going into an activation what the needs will be, we also keep ourselves open that there may be new needs that the public has that we need to watch for and be ready to adjust

What do you do when you aren’t working and volunteering?
When I’m not volunteering or at my day job, I both watch soccer and pre-COVID I also play in a 7v7 CoEd soccer league.  I hope we get to play again soon because it’s a fantastic stress reliever!  Shoutout to @fc_tiny and @TimbersArmyFC

Volunteer Spotlight: Ariana Mercer

When did you get involved with CEDR?

I’ve been volunteering with CEDR since August 2019, after seeing CEDR’s response to wildfires in the west and hurricanes in the east.

What are your activities and what do they involve?

I work with CEDR’s maps and GIS applications, primarily in ArcGIS Online. During activations, myself and other volunteers use these applications to map and update shelter locations in real time. Our shelter map is shared with the public to provide a single place to see all shelter locations, which often cross jurisdictional lines. The feature layers we maintain are made available to other organizations that may wish to use them in their own maps and apps.

I also participate in data mining during activations, which involves monitoring for new information about evacuations, shelters, and resources for those affected by a disaster.

What motivates you to stay involved?

Providing timely, accurate information to the public during a disaster is my goal at CEDR. Having been through many wildfire seasons growing up in California, a lack of current information can be dangerous, not to mention extremely frustrating. With new technology being applied to track and respond to disasters, there is more information to share and more places to share it than ever before. The challenge now lies in separating the good information from the bad, and helping accomplish that goal is what motivates me to stay involved with CEDR.

Of what contribution or achievement are you most proud?

During 2020, I revamped CEDR’s shelter mapping workflow, to move from a spreadsheet-based database to a truly GIS-based database. Combining the spreadsheets from all previous activations gave me several hundred shelter locations to start with, and in 2020 alone our volunteers (including myself) mapped more than 700 new shelter locations and over 200 evacuation center locations.

Using the tools available in ArcGIS Online, I was able to streamline the data entry process, so that we no longer have to manually enter information such as the county, state, and latitude and longitude of each shelter. In addition, relevant information is now easier for the public to see, such as the date and time each shelter location was last updated, and a link to Google Maps that will route someone from their location to a shelter.

In your opinion, what is the most important work that this organization does?

Sharing critical – and accurate – information quickly during a disaster response is the most important function of CEDR, in my opinion. While social media allows for easier and more frequent information sharing, it can also lead to misinformation spreading very quickly, which can have a real impact on peoples’ lives during a disaster. CEDR provides an important function by reviewing multiple sources to ensure we share only verified information.

What do you do when you aren’t working and volunteering?

In my free time, I enjoy spending time outdoors – hiking, camping, kayaking, anything that allows me to get out into nature (bonus points for anywhere without cell service). I also love reading; there’s nothing better than a used bookstore on a rainy day.