The Missoula Economic Partnership has secured a seat at a Western regional conference to help develop a national network of big-data hubs, one that could include the Garden City and the University of Montana.

Hosted by the National Science Foundation, the meeting in Salt Lake City is one of four planned around the country and the only meeting slated for the West. It’s a chance to put Missoula on the national data-science map.

“It’s a collaborative public-private effort to determine where the Western regional hubs will sit, and what the West can bring to the national table,” said Jenn Ewan, director of entrepreneurship and special projects with MEP. “I think it creates national awareness what this initiative is and highly the Missoula area and what’s happening here.”

According to the NSF, stakeholders will create a single big-data consortium within their region. The program looks to boost research and development, education and workforce, and overcome challenges particular to a region.

In their application letter, MEP cited its Big Data Alliance and its goals to advance technology in Missoula. It also noted the Innovation Initiative – a combination of startups looking to help entrepreneurs succeed.

UM promoted also promoted its ability to serve as a key contributor to the Western region consortium, given its geographic location. It cited its Cyber Innovation Lab and its research in analytics and forensics.

The school also serves as a member of the IBM Academic Initiative and newly created Symantec Academic Alliance. It’s now looking to launch a master’s degree in data science as early as next year.

“Companies are already working with other universities in getting interns, and we can say we actively do that on a regular basis,” Ewan said. “To market this and say we have a master’s in data science program would give us an edge.”

MEP told Missoula County commissioners last week that a master’s degree in data science would be a strong marketing tool for Missoula’s growing tech sector. It would also add to the tools created over the past few years.

“We’ll be advancing Missoula as the data hub in Montana,” said James Grunke, executive director of MEP. “We’re so much farther ahead than other communities in the data sciences. It’s a great growth opportunity, and we get to try and create a whole new industry here.”

UM also noted Missoula's national ranking as a top-20 high-tech startup location, and its recognition for having the highest entrepreneurial index in the country.

NSF will hold “Accelerating the Big Data Innovation Ecosystem” in Salt Lake City on Friday.