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Image by Neilson Barnard

President Obama Does SXSW

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The Director of SXSW Interactive, Hugh Forrest, said it best: confirming President Obama as the opening keynote speaker for this year’s conference was the most monumental thing ever to happen during its 30-year history.  And, the lucky lottery winners who received their “Congratulations” email late on Thursday night, who stood in the two-mile-long line up for over three hours on Friday, seemed to agree.POTUS SXSW

Speculation was buzzing about why the President wanted to speak at SXSW and what would be the topic of conversation. The current electoral candidates? The privacy case between Apple and the FBI? The massive digi-fail of the launch (or crash) of the Obamacare website? Or the future of data and technology? Through the one-hour
discussion with Evan Smith of The Texas Tribune, he covered it all, and more.

The reason President Obama chose to come speak at SXSW: “to recruit all of you!” With his exit from the White House soon approaching, he wants us – the self proclaimed digital nerds from around the world – to start developing new platforms, ideas, approaches and skill sets to solve some big problems. Here are a few:

Voting in the U.S.
There was plenty of conversation about how complicated and inaccessible voting is in the U.S. There are barriers and systems – or lack of systems, like online voter registration in Texas – that makes it difficult for citizens to vote.  “It’s easier to order a pizza than it is to vote!” he said, to a room full of laughter. With all of the advanced technology that exists out there, that allows us to buy groceries with our phone in a safe and secure way, there must be a solve where we can design a system to make the government more accessible to its citizens.

Access to the Interwebs
Smith hammered President Obama with stats about the lack of internet access in the U.S. – 50 percent of Hispanics and 46 percent of African-Americans lack regular connectivity – and the impact of the digital divide, specifically surrounding education. Obama respectfully refuted and spoke of the vast improvements made in recent years with government programs that have enabled wired classrooms, an e-library for continued learning and training for teachers across the U.S. to ensure they have a working knowledge of basic online tools. He admitted that online access is still inconsistent and needs a solve. Smith asked, point-blank: “You’re going to try to solve this problem?”, to which the President answered: “I’m trying to solve every problem!”

Digital in White House
With a stack of humility, President Obama talked about his digital blunder when launching Healthcare.gov. While he was trying to be the “cool, early adapter President”, the government website crashed upon launch and he had to bring in a swat team of digital experts to fix it. Learning from that, he created the U.S. Digital Services team, made up of top digital experts from Facebook, Google and the like, who are rebuilding very outdated software and bringing the White House into the digital age.

The Balance Between Law Enforcement and Privacy
The most anticipated topic on the table in light of the current Apple and FBI case surrounding privacy, was broached and, despite Obama initially saying that he couldn’t discuss the case, he left us with a pretty good idea of where he stands. In short, we cannot take an absolutist position on the matter: we live in a country that’s built on constitutional rights for privacy, but protection from dangers and wrong doing is equally important. Figuring out an amiable solution to this is of top importance, he said, and should be prioritized before something bad happens and quick, messy decisions are made by lawmakers.

All in all, the keynote left a huge impact – not only because of what was discussed, but also by the mere presence of the President in Austin. Whether you were at the event or not, everyone was buzzing about it and conversation about the above topics were on everyone’s mind and mouth. South By – you really outdid yourself this year.  Happy 30th!

Jenny Heinrich is vice president of Digital Strategy, leading influencer marketing, digital programming and content development in Chicago. Follow her on Twitter at @jennyheinrich.

Image by Neilson Barnard/Getty Images.
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