When President Obama took the stage last Friday for the keynote address at the South by Southwest (SXSW) Interactive festival, he did so with a predetermined pitch. Fitting, for the festival where tech entrepreneurs come to hawk their digital inventions.
Obama called on the crowd assembled before him, and the thousands more watching the livestream from SXSW conference rooms and lounges, to devote their talents to the government process — and to help Americans become more politically engaged.
Looking forward to discussing more ways we can modernize government so it's as smart and dynamic as America itself. See you soon, Austin.
— President Obama (@POTUS) March 11, 2016
When moderator Evan Smith, founder of the Texas Tribune, noted that the culture of the tech community (which he called “innovative and sleek”) and the culture of government (“bloated and slow”) couldn’t differ more widely, Obama responded with an anecdote: “You may recall that I passed this law, the Affordable Care Act (ACA), to sign people up for health care, and then the website didn’t work.”
Obama went on to explain how the recruitment of top software engineers to fix the ACA website led the administration to wonder, “What else needs fixing?”
This then led to the formation of a new governmental branch, which Obama called it a “tech SWAT team,” named the U.S. Digital Services. This department is tasked with updating old systems to give U.S. citizens better access to government services. One example of the branch’s work included moving the Federal Student Aid application (FASA) online and reducing the total application time by two-thirds.
But not everyone attending SXSW writes computer code or dreams of building a secure app that would allow for online voting. And Obama had a message for these people, too. “How can we come up with new ideas, new platforms, across disciplines, to solve problems?” he asked.
— Jessica Zetzman (@ActuallyJZ) March 7, 2016
Then, the festival officially started. Attendees jockeyed for position in lines at a multitude of panels and presentations, sucked down free booze and barbecue at industry-sponsored parties and appeared somewhat silly looking around in Virtual Reality goggles.
So, Did Obama’s Message Really Take?
Amid the intense marketing and networking and general insanity of SXSW, we wondered, did Obama’s message really take? Here, from our own experience traversing SXSW, is what we found:
- Government agencies, or people working closely with government agencies, drew large and enthusiastic crowds at SXSW panels and presentations. From a presentation by DARPA, the military branch that’s developing mind-controlled robotic arms for the disabled, to an EPA panel “rescuing” unused food from restaurants, grocery stores and farmers to feed the hungry, it became clear that the government is more than just the beleaguered IRS and the DMV. The U.S. government, either directly through an agency or indirectly through funding and support, is working to solve some of our world’s biggest problems.
- A majority of panelists at SXSW spoke not about how a certain technology could make us all rich, but rather, about how it might help people. “Social change,” was a catch phrase heard regularly around SXSW, and many panelists — from Dan Price, who took a million dollar pay-cut to institute a $70,000 minimum salary, to the inventors of MindRDR, a wearable brain activity sensor that can control computers just by thinking — urged attendees to focus on the greater good to humanity over the potential for making money.
That’s a message we can get behind. Thanks, Obama.
If you missed the POTUS at SXSW, you can watch it here.