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Cyber security: the next level for Northern Ireland

With fresh news of a new cyber-security hub being created for NI alongside Microsoft and a delegation heading to Cannes this summer to try and attract a big tech fish and further FDI, John Mulgrew looks at the growth of our place on the cyber world map and the initiatives helping grow it further

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Kevin Holland of Invest NI with Economy Minister Diane Dodds and Darren Dillon of Microsoft

Kevin Holland of Invest NI with Economy Minister Diane Dodds and Darren Dillon of Microsoft

Kevin Holland of Invest NI with Economy Minister Diane Dodds and Darren Dillon of Microsoft

You’d be hard pressed to have guessed even a decade ago that Northern Ireland would be setting out its stall as one of the growing world leaders in cyber-security.

But the latest news that Microsoft has chosen here as the location for a new cyber-security hub – creating 85 new jobs – only appears to have bolstered the already positive flood of almost week-to-week developments within Northern Ireland’s burgeoning tech sector.

And it’s not stopping there. A host of top public and private sectors this month will travel to the sunnier surroundings of Cannes for MIPIM – the world’s largest commercial property event – in a bid to potentially attract a big name technology giant to our shores, further cyber-security foreign direct investment (FDI) and develop a new cluster of companies here.

The burgeoning world of cyber-security is also getting a major investment to help tackle crime here. Based in Queen’s Centre for Secure IT in the heart of the growing cyber hub in the Titanic Quarter, the centre will help deliver the ‘Cyber Security: A Strategic Framework for Action’.

Sue Gray, permanent secretary at Department of Finance, says “working collaboratively across the public, private and community sectors the NI Cyber Security Centre has a key role in ensuring business and citizens are better informed when it comes to protecting our technology, systems and data”.

And speaking in her new role as Economy Minister, Diane Dodds, said the new Microsoft hub was secured as “a direct result of the skills and talent available here, but it is also an indicator of the strength and vibrancy of the local IT sector, particularly in the field of cyber-security”.

Alongside the hub, the Department for the Economy is funding pre-employment training places in Assured Skills Academies at Belfast Met, to help individuals compete for these vacancies.

“Assured Skills Academies have a track record of ensuring local employers have access to the skilled people they need in order to grow, while also upskilling local people and developing the capability of further education colleges,” the minister said.

“Microsoft is collaborating with my department and the college to develop Assured Skills Academies for participants to upskill and compete for roles in the company’s new Cyber Security Centre.”

Building on what Northern Ireland already has, Joe O’Neill – Belfast Harbour boss and the man leading the Belfast delegation to MIPIM – told Ulster Business: “We have a particular focus on cyber-security as an investment and operating location – particular those from the US.”

And that would be in addition to the already well-established cyber-security development at Catalyst in the Titanic Quarter in Belfast, along with new names coming in to the marketplace creating a “cluster” around the sector, and setting up Belfast and beyond as a new global hub.

Asked whether there was also the goal of attracting a tech giant such as Facebook or Google to Northern Ireland, Joe said: “Something like that, or a major investor. For them to do that – a technology or an investment company – they need to see that the public, private and third-tier sectors are all collaborating together to make an effective market, and I think we are good at doing that now.”

Speaking about Microsoft’s latest cyber-security expansion here, Kevin Holland, the newly appointed chief executive of Invest NI, said it was a “vote of confidence for both Northern Ireland and the talented people here”.

And Damian Duffy, director of development at Belfast Met, said: “Belfast Met is a leading provider of pre-employment training that is industry-relevant and equips participants with hard and soft skills that will help them operate in the business world. We look forward to welcoming the first cohort of participants.”

Elsewhere, financial tech is also on the rise here, with Andrew Jenkins appointed new fintech envoy for Northern Ireland, by HM Treasury.

“The UK is a world leader in the financial services with Northern Ireland playing a strong role, but we cannot stand still,” he said.

Speaking following the publication of the Financial Services Skills Taskforce: Final Report from HM Treasury, he said Northern Ireland “must continue to move forward and identify the trends which are impacting upon further growth. This is essential to transforming the workforce and the sector as a whole”.

“The issues identified in this report are true right across the UK and despite vibrant ecosystems in Belfast, London, Edinburgh and Cardiff, we need an effective strategy and overarching vision to continue to be a world leader for the next decade and beyond,” he said.

“We have a flourishing sector in Northern Ireland, but competition is strong and we are not only competing with other UK cities but also right across the world. To remain competitive, we need to invest in those with the talent and skills which can drive us forward.”

The rising demand for both job creation and FDI for tech firms and cyber-security also mirrors the rise in household access and use of tech.

More than four in five households have broadband access, and the overall uptake of broadband technology has been rapid – a three-fold increase in little over a decade – while smartphone use among those over 16 now sits at 82%.

Professional services firm PwC has also joined up with Catalyst – home to a host of Northern Ireland’s leading tech and cyber firms –  in a bid to boost its research and development around areas such as artificial intelligence (AI).

The collaboration will see the firm’s tech-enabled Operate delivery division work with the innovation community to help shape programmes and support entrepreneurship. It helps businesses overcome operational challenges, such as financial crime operations and regulatory testing.

Also in the world of cyber, the first UK wide semi-final of the CyberFirst Girls Competition, organised by the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC), took place in Belfast last month.

The competition was developed by the NCSC to introduce young female students to the world of cyber-security and the skills that can inspire a future career. The regional winners will progress to the UK Final which will take place later this month.

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