If all goes as planned, next year the University of Montana will unveil a "Cyber Innovation Laboratory" that looks something like a scene from a high-tension television drama. But instead of actors, the lab will host aspiring student hackers and forensic technicians learning the technical skills they'll need to navigate the modern age.
"We often see in a lot of the crime dramas, they'll get a computer and they'll take a hard drive out or they'll take different pieces out of a system and they'll take them out there and run tests," says Nancy Hinman, interim associate provost for dynamic learning. "You could imagine a situation where there's a desk with electronics equipment on it to run tests on parts."
This fall, UM and several local firms that specialize in cyber-technology, including LMG Technology and GCS Research, and the Alps Corporation began brainstorming ways to grow Missoula into an Internet security hub. From those discussions came the idea to create the lab and an agreement to forge a public-private partnership, one in which the university provides the physical space and local businesses fund the computers and software.
To date, private entities have committed $15,000, enough, Hinman says, to begin transforming a space in UM's Interdisciplinary Sciences Building into a cybersecurity nexus.
In conjunction with the lab's launch, UM aims to roll out a two-year Network and Information Security Professional certificate program through the Missoula College. Specific offerings will, pending approval from the Montana Board of Regents, include classes on how to hack systems and, thereby, test cybersecurity, as well as courses on what's called "big data," which deal with transforming massive amounts of information into digestible bits.
Hinman says the lab's impact on Missoula's labor pool could be substantial. She cites a report issued by management consulting firm McKinsey & Company, which predicts that by 2018 there will be a shortage of 1.5 million big-data analysts and managers. "That's pretty big," she says.
ALPs Corporation President David Bell is working to raise funds for the lab and shares Hinman's excitement.
"This is not some far-flung aspiration," he says. "We're making this happen."