With cheap energy, a stable political environment and a big step forward in current thinking, why shouldn't New Zealand become an international hub for data storage and data-intensive business?

The success of data analytics companies such as Endace (now Avago Technologies) and Wynyard indicates the potential to enhance our high-technology economy.

New Zealand is also engaged in big data research, for example through the Auckland University of Technology-hosted NZ Alliance SKA project on the international Square Kilometre Array radio astronomy programme. This project has industry partners such as Catalyst IT, Compucon and Nyriad.

But, in a growing networked international community, New Zealand must move much faster if it is to stay in the big data game.


Credit is due to successive Ministers of Science and Technology, most recently Steven Joyce, who since 2006 have driven Government co-investment with the research sector in eResearch infrastructure through the Crown-owned Research and Education Advanced Network New Zealand (REANNZ).

The company now offers data speeds about 1000 times faster than UFB, and will be launching cloud services in 2015. Ninety-four per cent of its member clients now see the ultra-high performance, ultra-reliable REANNZ network, and add-ons such as video conferencing and advanced technical services, as essential to their business.

The Government has also co-funded high-performance computing through the National eScience Infrastructure group (NeSI) and gene sequencing through New Zealand Genomics (NZGL).

Internationally, many countries have seized on the potential economic benefits of data-intensive research and big data analytics and invested heavily in scientific infrastructure. Competition for funding is fierce.

However, most research and education institutions have yet to invest in more advanced IT infrastructure which makes access to remote high-performance computing or efficiently transferring huge data sets over the network possible.

Sadly, there are NZ researchers still sending data discs by courier.

So what additional steps must we take to lift our game even further?

First, we need an integrated national approach to investment in the research and education advanced network, high-performance computing, research cloud services, data-intensive research capability and research data storage and curation.


The eResearch 2020 governance group, led by the boards of REANNZ, NeSI and NZGL, is now working collaboratively on this issue.

Secondly, New Zealand must continue to attract and retain the best possible international talent to drive new approaches to how we work with and manage data.

In 2011, REANNZ appointed its current chief executive, Steve Cotter, from the United States, where he led the Energy Sciences Network -- the research network that connects all of the national laboratories in the US.

Cotter's appointment and subsequent technical specialist appointments have been transformational for REANNZ, taking the company to positions of technical and thought leadership in New Zealand.

Thirdly, we need to minimise the barriers to development of big data analytics and storage businesses.

Multinationals in this space are unlikely to look at this country as an investment location until they have diversity of suppliers for international connectivity with a second fibre optic cable across the Pacific.

I believe this investment is vital to build a competitive market environment and drive lower costs for international connectivity, particularly in a future where incredibly fast data rates will be commonplace.

Finally, eResearch infrastructure needs to be at least partially government subsidised if a country's researchers are to have access to capabilities that may not yet have widespread commercial applications.

While highways are critical to getting goods to market, it's unlikely you'd see one built if society required truck drivers to fund their construction.

The same applies to eResearch Infrastructure. Internationally, 114 out of 117 research networks are government subsidised so that researchers have access to capacity for short bursts of extremely high bandwidth or to advanced services.

I step down this month as board chair at REANNZ after six years, during which the combined investment by Government and members has led to a much more useful and sophisticated network, which must nonetheless be upgraded every few years to keep up with researchers' requirements.

I believe there is a case for a redesigned partnership between the research sector and the Government, based on an integrated national approach to eResearch infrastructure investment and capability.

Regardless of whether this initiative and new investment is led by the Government, or by a group of research institutions, we must move forward without delay.

Failure to do so will weaken the international standing of New Zealand researchers and have long-term negative impacts on our high-technology industry prospects.

If we embrace this challenge, the benefits to New Zealand research and industry could be huge.

John Raine is pro vice chancellor (research and innovation) at Auckland University of Technology and retiring board chair of REANNZ.