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Your View: Higher Education and Local Government Are Holding Back Miami’s Tech Scene

Your View shares our fellow locals’ perspectives on issues affecting our collective future. Want to weigh in? Pitch us your idea at thenewtropic.wpengine.com/pitch.

We’ve all heard the hype: Miami is the next Silicon Valley. At least that’s what my mother tells me. She’s almost 60 and read it in one of the hundreds of articles published last year that extols the growth of the Miami tech community.

“It’s amazing, Justin. CNNMoney says Miami is the best place to start a start-up right after Oklahoma City! emojiheartemojisnowmanemojisunglasses

I would love to believe her, but my mother is clearly not the best source of insight into the health of Miami’s tech scene. (She once grew concerned as to why I needed blood work when I told her I was “going to The LAB.”) The truth is the publicity surrounding our “tech scene” (a term I use, along with “tech community”, broadly throughout this article) is belied by the experiences of local observers. The fact is Miami is not the next Silicon Valley. It’s not even close. It’s also not the next Boston, Los Angeles, New York, District of Columbia, Atlanta, or Austin, all of which are exciting and prosperous hubs for emerging technologies. So what makes Miami so different and why do local companies have such a hard time competing with more established tech scenes for talent, capital, and influence? Well, it turns out it comes down to education and local government support.

Justin Wales, at a recent Emerge Miami meeting.

Justin Wales, at a recent Emerge Miami meeting.

Make no bones about it; Miami is in a period of rapid growth and it would be disingenuous to deny that our much hyped tech scene has seemingly grown out of nowhere over the last several years. The best measure of a tech industry’s health is not the number of articles written about it, but rather the number of investments made to local businesses in a given year. In 2014, Miami did not even crack the top 20. An analysis of the cities at the top of the list, and a study of their common characteristics, demonstrates why Miami is so far behind. In each instance top U.S. tech communities are located near institutes of higher learning that are renowned for their STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) curricula and are governed by municipal bodies dedicated to cultivating tech talent and entrepreneurial development through a variety of incentive programs and policies. In terms of both education and governmental infrastructure, Miami lags behind.

It would be unfair to expect Miami’s local universities to develop into the type of powerhouse institutions that anchor the nation’s most established tech communities. The University of Miami, Florida International University and Miami-Dade College will never have the history, prestige, focus, or endowment of leading STEM universities like Stanford, Cal Tech, or M.I.T. But our local universities do not need to reach such hallowed levels in order to fill the talent gap that exists in our community. For years, keen observers have witnessed young programmers leave to pursue computer science or engineering degrees at out-of-state universities because local universities do not place great enough focus on STEM. Fleeing local talent forces local tech entrepreneurs to relocate out of state to find a talent pool capable of meeting their demands, and prevents established tech companies from developing a local presence. The lack of tech companies located in Miami keeps experienced programmers from moving to Miami because of a lack of available work.

Over the past decade local universities have begun to focus more on growing their STEM programs, and computer programming “bootcamps” have emerged to help fill some of the need for local talent. However, unless and until our institutions of higher learning double down and drastically increase funding to STEM departments and make an effort to attract high-level local and foreign talent by offering more STEM scholarships, Miami will never be able to develop a robust and self-sustaining tech community.

As important as a community’s educational institutions are in fostering tech growth, the role of local government is just as important in developing a vibrant tech community. Emerging tech communities throughout the country have catalyzed growth by offering tax benefits and other incentives to lure companies to their city. Such programs have been proven to help turn once blighted areas, such as San Francisco’s Tenderloin district, into tech havens. When compared to officials for more established tech communities, our local leaders have been either woefully disinterested or outright antagonistic to the idea of implementing policies to foster Miami’s tech growth. For instance, last October Phil Levine, Mayor of Miami Beach, declared at the U.S. Conference of Mayors that “Miami Beach is never going to be a high-tech hub”, stating that Miami Beach should focus on tourism and luxury living rather than fostering tech. Mayor Levine’s comments are certainly not indicative of the attitudes of all officials throughout the Miami-Dade region, however the fact that an influential local official could so flippantly disregard the need to support local tech demonstrates how far away some of our leaders are compared to those in similarly developing municipalities who want growth for their region’s tech industry.

There are, of course, signs of hope. Investments into local businesses have increased over the last several years and a number of local tech businesses have committed to remaining part of the local community (so long as local talent exists to sustain growth). We have also seen some local leaders embrace the idea of developing municipal practices to foster tech development.

An exciting example of this recent shift towards a pro-tech agenda was the announcement on Saturday by Mayor Carlos Gimenez that the County has developed a regional open data portal, which can be found at opendata.miamidade.gov. This announcement marks a sea-change in terms of local government support of Miami’s developer community and allows, for the first time, local programmers and entrepreneurs to make for-profit and not-for-profit applications that rely on bulk County-owned data.

While the County’s decision to create a regional open data portal should certainly be commended, it is only one of many steps necessary to truly encourage the growth of Miami’s tech community. As of its launch, there are only a handful of non-GIS data sets available through the County’s data portal, and the process for requesting the addition of new data sets, as well as how often each is updated, remains unclear. Since this data is only as useful to local developers and entrepreneurs as the procedures surrounding its maintenance, the County (by means of either an executive order or a legislative enactment) needs to implement an Open Data Policy which outlines the procedures by which the County operates to maintain and grow its data portal.

That our community does not yet live up to the hype surrounding it does not mean that Miami cannot develop into a healthy and prosperous tech community. It’s just going to require patience, as well as a commitment by local educational institutions to develop talent and by our elected officials to promote tech entrepreneurialism. How to fully achieve these goals is complicated, but as with all tasks, it’s best to start with the lowest hanging fruit: local universities should commit to increasing STEM scholarships and Miami-Dade County should implement an Open Data Policy so developers can make full use of its newly announced Open Data portal.

Justin Wales is a First Amendment attorney at Carlton Fields Jorden Burt. He is a New Leaders Council Miami Fellow, a member of Emerge Miami, and he serves as a policy adviser for Code for Miami.