Geoff's Blog: Planting a Des Moines flag on "data"

Every Wednesday Geoff publishes "The Pull", a digest of the top news for the Iowa innovation community that week. The following is the introduction to Issue #221.

I was recently at a meeting with some startup community builder friends and the idea came up that entrepreneurial ecosystems can really benefit from having a community "flag" to rally around and get all the elements—people, companies, investors, chambers, etc.—moving in the same direction.

The topic was suggested by a friend from Chattanooga, Tenn. who noted that their "Gig City" initiative (a community-wide public fiber optic network started in 2010) had been exactly that for their community. It's not that this fast internet necessarily solved all their problems or that everyone was even building solutions that utilized the network but the idea of it become a sort of base platform for the community.

VentureBeat wrote an overview piece on Chattanooga this week and saw the same thing. They describe it this way: "where Chattanooga has succeeded, however, is in taking one component of a tech ecosystem—fast, reliable internet—and used it as a building block for elements that the city was previously lacking."

A similar flag was planted in Kansas City when Google Fiber was first announced in 2012 and it looks like Fargo is in the midst of planting one now around drone technology.

This conversation made me think about where we can plant a flag for this community and the obvious starting point is data centers. I'll leave it to the politicians and economists to debate if recent incentive projects for Facebook, Apple and Microsoft make financial sense but—like it or not—this is a path we're going down and we should find a way to leverage it for the benefit of the startup community.

I bristle a bit when I see data center projects described as a buoy for our tech or startup community. Yes, the facilities are owned by major tech companies and its nice to be able to say that they're on the ground in Iowa but the network engineers they employ here are not the same as the software engineers and product managers they employ on the coasts. The latter groups are the ones much more likely to spin out one day and create their own companies, growing the ecosystem. If Apple had announced this summer that they were bringing application development teams to Waukee, I think this is a very different conversation and I would be all in on the idea that what we're seeing is the future of our tech community. However, data centers are what we have and I'm pretty excited about the idea of using them for our own "building block for elements that [our community is] lacking".

I mentioned this idea to my friend Tom Chapman, who does research on entrepreneurial ecosystems all around the country, and he suggested expanding it even broader to plant the flag on "data" and tie the data centers together with the big data initiatives going on in our insurance companies and at our large research universities. He even suggested a theme: "Des Moines is where data lives". Developing slogans and tag lines aren't my thing but I think he's on to something.