Wednesday, March 12, 2014
South by Southwest Interactive had a lot of relevant information by and for government agencies

The argument has been made (and made and made) that SxSW is So Over ™.  Respectfully, I disagree.  It is certainly a corporate event—witness Samsung offering to bring a free, charged battery to anyone whose Samsung device is running low—but that doesn’t mean that governments agencies, whether local, state, or federal, should skip out.  Indeed, here are only five things that I learned at the five-day interactive festival:

  1. Project managers beyond communications shops are using social media, and especially social media analytics, to improve their performance.  The most piquant example of this was provided by Matt Desjardin and Zach Boisi in a panel titled “Social Media and Representative Democracy,” which used the hashtag #SocialGov.  In a series of charts, they showed how their tool, Grade.DC.Gov, started out as a way for people to communicate with their local government (in this case, the Washington, DC, government) about how various agencies were performing.  What happened was that program managers for the various agencies saw in real time how they could improve the performance of the programs under their purview.
  2. Entrepreneurs are getting more interested in government, and vice versa.  Quite a few of the panels I attended, such as “7 ways to engage with the US State Department,” and “Hack the Bureaucracy,” focused on how entrepreneurs could bring their talents to government and how government agencies could accommodate and benefit from new perspectives and fresh energy.  In the latter session, people spoke about how some of those entrepreneurs—in this case, former Presidential Innovation Fellows—actually stayed to work in government after their program had officially ended.
  3. Many of the problems social entrepreneurs are trying to address are also challenges that concern government agencies—and vice versa.  In a session called “Digital Divides and Tech Famines,” two panelists described various aspects of the digital divide—race, class, age, geography—and how some people and organizations were trying to address them.  What was interesting to me is that some of the people in attendance didn’t know that there are government agencies that would likely be willing to partner with them, as they are also trying to reach these constituencies through both digital and traditional channels.
  4. Data.  It is getting bigger.  It is getting more open. It is getting more valuable. We are all generating more of it. We are storing more of it. We are seeing it visualized in ways that both give us more insight to what we are seeing but at the same time obscure the raw data itself.  More kinds of organizations are using it (gyms, for example). We still want to retain privacy, but we also stand to benefit from more sharing.  This single aspect deserves its own post and I’ll write that up shortly.
  5. The future is going to be awesome. There are people who are working on devices and applications that are truly wonderful: a few companies have developed devices that turn your smartphone into a multi-function body sensor.  This is not wearable technology, but rather home medical units that could have a big impact on telemedicine. At the same time, extensions are being written for Firefox, Chrome, and other browsers that tells you who is tracking your Web activity, why, and gives you the ability to turn off their code on a given site (so when you look up a medical condition that one of those devices hints at, you won’t have to view ads for a medicine you don’t need).  Applications were exhibited that make it easy to export HTML tables into a spreadsheet and thus manipulate the data, potentially unlocking scads of data currently locked into legacy formats (and points to a time when PDF tables can also be converted easily into useable forms).  And finally, real-time is going mainstream: many organizations, mine included, have real-time digital monitoring tools that can now mash up so many data feeds that program managers can respond nearly instantaneously to events that are still in progress.

There is much more that I could write, but I’m in the airport, tethering my laptop to my phone to post this. I feel like I’m already living in the future.  And I’ll write more about what the further future portends in the coming days.