By Steve Winter, Senior Vice President, Sage Communications
President Obama was about 30 minutes late for his landmark keynote speech at the SXSW Music, Film and Interactive Conference and Festivals, but the truth is, he had a very good excuse.
On their way from the airport to the Long Center for the Performing Arts, he made a necessary stop at Torchy’s – an Austin landmark known for its tacos.
When pressed by host and moderator, Evan Smith, editor, publisher and CEO of the Texas Tribune, the president admitted, “I ordered the Democrat.” After a short pause, he then also acknowledged that “I ordered a Republican and an Independent because I wanted to give all people a proper hearing.”
The tacos aside, President Obama was in town to deliver what he considered to be one of the most important messages of his presidency, a missive so profound that his appearance in Austin marked the first time ever that a sitting president has appeared in the 30-year legacy of the festival.
“We are at a moment in history where technology, globalization, our economy is changing so fast and this gathering – South-by-Southwest – brings together people who are at the cutting edge of those changes,” the president said at the start of his conversation. “Those changes offer us enormous opportunities but also are very disruptive and unsettling. They empower individuals to do things they could never have dreamed of before but they also empower folks who are very dangerous to spread dangerous messages.”
Part of that message, the president said, is trying to find ways in which the government can be a part of the positive change that is taking place and can help convene and catalyze folks in both the private and non-profit sector to be part of the broader realm of the civic community while helping the government tackle some of the nation’s – and the world’s – biggest challenges
The conversation covered a broad range of topics, not the least of which was the ongoing battle over the national privacy versus security debate sparked by the current legal battle between Apple and the FBI.
The focal points of the discussion however centered on three major issues – digital technology platforms designed to make government work better, citing new online Social Security applications and improved interagency interaction; a conversation on precision medicine; and the engagement of big data analytics and technology designed to make civic participation better, with a particular focus on expanding the role of technology in voting.
While only 2,000 fortunate souls enjoyed personal access to the president’s appearance in the Long Center, the keynote was streamed at virtually every venue across the festival, playing before packed houses in lounges, meeting rooms and ballrooms. The reception, as one might imagine at an event so progressive as South-By, was overwhelmingly positive.
“The president’s appearance and his session was very well thought out, trying to appeal to the tech community to get more civic involvement and engagement in government and working with the government, rather than it being two opposing factions,” said Elisha Dickson of Baltimore. “I work with in mobile applications and know a lot of people in the tech field, and I think his message will absolutely resonate with my colleagues.”
“I learned a lot today,” said Deon Vincent of Austin. “It was first time being in a room with President Obama and having the chance to network with people. I learned how the government uses technology to change the world; it was a great experience.”
While the accolades were many, the president cited the failure of the Affordable Care Act website as an example of government’s outdated systems and said that controversial collapse led to the creation of the U.S. Digital Service.
“This was a little embarrassing for me,” President Obama said. “My entire campaign was based on having cool technology.”
For those in attendance however, the positives far outweighed any negatives.
“I was born in Eastern Germany behind the wall and now I am standing here listening to the president of the United States,” said Juergen Schneider, “I was so impressed hearing how President Obama has tried to solve the problems of the government with new technology. This was one of the great moments in my life.”
SXSW runs from March 11 to March 20.