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Making Cybersecurity Accessible to All in North Dakota

“Dad, where the hell are my classes?”

Two years ago, North Dakota CIO Shawn Riley’s daughter cornered him with this very question.

“I looked at her and went, ‘Well what are you talking about?’” Riley said. “And she went down this line of ‘I want to do this and this, and I don’t even see these classes.’ And we started this conversation then around that – of women in IT.”

States throughout the United States are encountering comparable challenges in cybersecurity – salvos of cyberattacks that strike their networks 24/7. North Dakota is no exception, rebuffing 1,100 attacks every minute, according to Riley. These attacks, which come in a variety of forms, threaten personal data, business gains and critical infrastructure.

And yet for every attack in a minute, there’s an open IT job in North Dakota. In March 2019, Code.org identified 1,108 unfilled computing positions in the state, but there were only 117 computer science graduates.

So when Riley’s daughter opened up a dialogue about the availability of programs in IT – particularly for girls and young women – he listened. And two years later, the state is making significant progress in making cyber open to everyone.

In North Dakota’s first year participating in the SANS Institute’s Girls Go CyberStart and Fast Track programs, 310 North Dakota girls from 28 schools participated – the highest per capita rate of any of the 26 states that were involved.

Furthermore, the state launched an innovative program, the K-20W initiative – which represents a comprehensive cyber and IT education, beginning in kindergarten and spanning throughout a Ph.D. degree, eventually leading to a more educated and prepared workforce.

Supplementing the reach of the program, North Dakota – despite its low population density – has a bare minimum of one gig broadband in any part of the state, and every school has broadband capabilities.

“In my mind, this is fundamental, like reading or mathematics,” Riley said of cybersecurity and computer literacy.

It’s not just in Riley’s mind; he’s garnered the support of the state Legislature and governor, who control the ultimate budget for cyber- and IT-related programs throughout the state.

At the start of 2019, Riley and industry partners hosted a hacking demo within the state capitol to demonstrate how cybercriminals could access networks through phishing and website hoax attacks, stealing tax and Social Security information. Over the last legislative session, Riley met with more than half of the state legislators and engaged key stakeholders within the university and education systems.

Some of those meetings meant bringing along special speakers – young students who could testify to how cybersecurity education programs had helped them.

Legislators have responded, unanimously approving Riley’s request to consolidate cyber defense authority across the seven branches of government – executive, judicial, legislative, K-12 education, higher education, cities and counties – into one central office in April 2019.

Riley said good-naturedly, and with a laugh, that when his IT budget wasn’t approved as submitted, it was an anomaly, notwithstanding the ruthless and parsimonious occasion of budget hearings. His office still received $14.4 million of his proposed $16.4 million.

Widespread support has propelled the state to achieve many national firsts – the first state to have an hourlong coding session across schools, the first state to have consolidated cyber defense authority and soon the first state to have a beyond visual line of sight radar system for drone technology, meaning drones can be flown outside of the operator’s line of sight.

“We’ve tried to make it as openly acceptable across the board for everybody to be in these programs, and so that everybody can look at it and say, ‘Hey, technology’s cool; I want to be part of that,’” Riley said.

The spark that started all of the programs, Riley’s daughter, is now 16 years old — and still coding. While she currently lives in Minnesota, she’s been able to take advanced IT classes at Bismarck State College and North Dakota State University. The Girl Scouts are leading programs as well, and in the summer, Riley is bringing a troop of Minnesota Girl Scouts to Bismarck State College to learn about cyber.

This article is an excerpt from GovLoop’s recent guide, “Intelligent Innovation: Tech Trends Taking Root in State and Local Governments.” Download the full guide here.

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