Saying all the ingredients are in place to make their move, a group of data-minded business leaders took the early steps last week to move the University of Montana and the city of Missoula to the forefront of cyber security.

The group met over lunch Wednesday with David Hamon, director of Banyan Analytics at Analytic Services Inc., based in Virginia. Hamon believes that future crimes and warfare will be waged over computers through attacks on financial systems and vital infrastructure, such as power grids and U.S. businesses.

“This isn’t like the old days where a guy with a mask over his head and a gun came looking to rob you,” said Hamon. “This is all done with a computer. The actors of this, whether they work for the (People’s Liberation Army) or they’re anarchists or criminals, it’s a finger and a button, and business have to take more responsibility for themselves to deter it.”

And that’s where the data executives present Wednesday see an opportunity for Missoula to further define itself as a hub for "big data" and cybersecurity while building a new industry around the need for information assurance.

Coupled with Missoula’s existing big-data startups, the group believes Missoula and its flagship university can position themselves in the industry, just as the nation and its businesses look for protection from attacks waged by criminals, anarchists, foreign states and terrorists.

“Let’s help implement programs together and take the action that has been suggested here as a way forward,” said Alex Philp, founder and president of big-data analysis firm GCS Research. “The work we’ve already done and labored for over months and years to get going now has a real international, practical application in an area that’s worth trillions of dollars to this country.”

The push to grow Missoula’s big-data alliance isn’t new, though it received a jolt of energy from Hamon’s visit. Hamon recently worked for the Department of Defense in the Office of Strategic Research and its Defense Threat Reduction Agency.

At Analytic Services, Hamon now uses computer analysis to inform decisions used by the U.S. government to engage in the Asia-Pacific theater. He advised the Missoula group on ways to position itself as a leader in the industry.

“The government isn’t going to jump in with two hands and two feet to be the savior to protect what we call the economy and financial system,” Hamon said. “There’s a responsibility and big opportunity for business to represent itself and look after these threats.”

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Missoula may have a jump on other cities, members of the panel agreed. UM, in collaboration with IBM, became the first in the nation to offer a course on InfoSphere Streams, described as a big-data computer platform from IBM.

The university also is working to create a degree in big-data analytics and to develop opportunities for research graduates. A Cyber Innovation Laboratory is under development as well. Once open, the lab will train students to assess vulnerabilities in information systems while studying digital forensics and data breaches.

David Bell, president and CEO of ALPS Corp. in Missoula, said UM has made “extraordinary progress” in creating the cutting-edge programs in a short period of time.

Bell also described the university’s role as just one leg of a three-legged stool. If Missoula looks to define itself as an industry leader, he added, local businesses operating in the big-data realm must join the discussion.

“In order to create a robust cyber- and big-data marketplace in Missoula and Montana, we have to have the essential ingredients of a foreign team, and an incubator of technology-competent graduates who will create a deep labor pool so that when companies come here, they can look locally and find the best talent,” he said.

That foreign component may already be present at the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Center at UM. Hamon was invited to visit Missoula by Abraham Kim, the center’s new director.

Kim said the center looks to promote global education, and it wants to play a role in shaping the future, including areas of digital technology and workforce development in Missoula.

“We want to play an important role in that kind of development in the state,” said Kim. “If this is an area for our community, then the Mansfield Center wants to play a big role. We have the connections with Washington, D.C., and Asia, and we can put the experts and policy books together to facilitate these policy discussions.”

Reporter Martin Kidston can be reached at 523-5260, or at martin.kidston@missoulian.com.

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