Grunke Column: Big Data Means Big Opportunity for Missoula Businesses

Last month, together with Blackfoot Telecommunications and the Montana Technology Enterprise Center, we announced a partnership to bring gigabit broadband capacity to the companies housed at MonTEC. Taken on its own, this is big news for those companies, which can now explore new ways of doing high-tech business in Missoula.

But there is a broader strategic significance to this initiative. As we look at opportunities to stimulate sustainable economic growth in Missoula in coming years, we see substantial potential in the realms of information technology, and particularly in the emerging field of big data analytics.

There are plenty of reasons why Missoula is uniquely well-positioned to compete in these fields. With one of the least-congested major fiber optic cable lines in America running right through town, Missoula’s available bandwidth is all but unlimited. The University of Montana serves not only as a steady source of highly skilled technology workers, but also as a bridge between the realms of research and business. And, as a recent report by Atlantic Cities showed, Missoula has lately become a hotbed of venture capital deals, ranking eighth nationally in per-capita density.

Risk capital, skilled workers, infrastructure: Those are the core elements necessary to build a strong local IT industry. What’s more, in this industry our community’s remoteness isn’t an impediment to success, and can even be an advantage.

These factors hold even greater promise in distinguishing our community in the field of big data analytics.

What’s that? Simply stated, big data analytics is a field devoted to gleaning useful information out of the exploding quantity of data available to businesses. Today, more data is being generated than can be stored on existing devices, according to industry analysts at International Data Corporation — and the gap is widening. That means companies need to learn how to extract useful information from all that digital noise in real time.

Thanks to concerted effort and vision, Missoula is already establishing itself as a world leader in this emerging field.

Last year, the University of Montana offered the world’s first undergraduate course in InfoSphere Streams, a cutting-edge “big data” compute platform from IBM. Today, the University is working with IBM, Symantec, Cisco and others to create a pioneering, interdisciplinary big data analytics degree program as well as graduate research opportunities.

Meantime, local leaders from the private, public and educational sectors have created the Missoula Big Data Alliance. Facilitated by the Partnership, this working group aims to address infrastructure needs and identify big data opportunities in areas such as cybersecurity, natural resource management, health care and others.

One key to building and attracting those companies is to demonstrate that Missoula has the broadband infrastructure to support them. With our partnership at MonTEC, we’ve now proved that.

Big data means big opportunity. IT research company Gartner predicts that by 2015, big data demand will reach 4.4 million jobs. If even a fraction of that opportunity can be harnessed here, it could have profound economic implications.

Even so, success in that field alone won’t sustain long-term growth in Missoula. That’s why we’re actively working to build and attract companies in other “best-fit” sectors, including life sciences, manufacturing, back office & creative professional services, and forest products & renewables.

Our focus on these sectors reflects analysis of Missoula’s assets such as available labor, geographic location and infrastructure. It also reflects our focus on growing jobs that provide higher-than-average, sustainable paychecks to local workers.

In the end, that’s what it’s ultimately all about.

James Grunke is CEO of the Missoula Economic Partnership. This column originally appeared in the September 29, 2013 edition of the Missoulian’s InBusiness Weekly


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