Apr 26, 2012

Musings from SXSW—Setting the Stage for the Next Big Idea

Chris Jones's picture
Chris Jones
Principal, Strategy & Engineering

The dust storm of people, ideas, technology, and BBQ that is SXSW Interactive seems ages ago. But only a month later, I am still digesting some ideas I heard there—and a little of the pulled pork, too. After a few years off from SX, I returned without any must-sees or to-dos. A few important client meetings and interesting panels, but I purposely kept space open to hear new ideas and ruminate without discretion.

Without a big tech launch, I wasn’t distracted. I had time to watch startups present and consider some reoccurring themes. I listened to ideas about things like, “How will technology continue to add value? Is this obsession with hackathons turning the corner or jumping the shark? What is the ‘hacking’ buzz all about, and what problems will ‘hackers’ really solve?”

In my mind, all designers, investors, developers, and inventors are hackers to some degree. For these SXSW “hacker” attendees, questions like these are good—in fact, this uncertainty is familiar and often fertile ground.

I didn’t hear anyone with definitive answers to these puzzles at SX, but I did hear some interesting ideas.
The Challenges of Data and Democracy

This year, there lacked an emphasis on re-engineering the way we sell books and music as I’ve seen in the past. It was nice to see disrupting traditional commercial models was not the primary focus. The discussions on the docket focused more on how we act and what we value as a society.

Particularly, there was lot of talk about data: big data, APIs, data mining, etc. There is more data than ever before—ain’t that the truth. But what do we do with it? How can big data become smart data, useful data?
Todd Park, the U.S. Government’s new Chief Technology Officer, gave a presentation about all this data. His office wants to create APIs for America’s entrepreneurs to leverage and help the government solve problems. He set forth the challenge to create new businesses, products, and services with the government’s data—all while keeping taxpayer costs neutral. This turns the role of government on its head! Rather than government supplying the end service, it is releasing the raw materials of the information age—data—and empowering the private sector to define or improve a service.
The same sentiment was echoed by Jennifer Pahlka of Code for America. I’ve been doing some coaching for Code for America, and seeing Jennifer’s presentation put that work in a much wider context for me. Systems once locked behind layers of bureaucracy and inefficiency are opening up.
We, the Hackers

The message from Park and Pahlka was inspiring, and reminded me of the open days, during the dawn of the “commercial Internet.” I remembered a meeting I had in the mid-'90s with a well-respected brand manager. At the time, he equated the Internet to wine coolers and scoffed at the market size of web users. Many people shared that view, but they also lacked any leadership or vision. But the hacker culture didn’t let this perspective define its thinking—it turned fuzzy navels into billion dollar valuations.
How? It wasn’t a top-down culture. The hacker culture embraced visionary leadership and constant innovation from engineers, students, investors, and designers. The commercial Internet’s growth could be attributed to this new thinking and risk-taking powered by this spectrum of people with a wide range of skill sets.
I see elements of that in what Park, Pahlka, and others are trying to do. They are searching outside their organizations for innovation. They bring leadership, vision, and data—and want to connect with a diverse group of people and skills to solve problems. Tough, big problems.
For instance, how can we leverage healthcare data to tackle our population’s soaring diabetes epidemic? How can we find work for our returning war veterans? How can people improve their public transportation systems? Or how can people become more connected with their local communities to improve their standards of living?
All these questions fit naturally into the hacker culture’s thought process. This is what makes the hacker community at SXSW so vital. This culture thrives on constantly reinventing technology to create new opportunities.

Already, the White House is seeing returns on releasing certain data sets, and Code for America is making a real impact in American cities.

I am certain there is no better group to do that than the fearless members of the technology and design communities at SXSW that will inevitably hack something together that no one predicted and will be irreplaceable. It doesn't have to be a billion dollar idea. On the other hand, it's not unprecedented for a small group of hackers to transform the solution to a complex problem into the next billion dollar company.