sxsw 2016

At SXSW: Barack Obama's Call to Action for the Tech Industry

At SXSW: Barack Obama's Call to Action for the Tech Industry
Image credit: SXSW

Those looking for drama as the first-ever sitting President came to keynote Austin’s SXSW festival were in for a disappointment.

The 2,000 attendees were decided via a random ticket lottery, calming the sometimes chaotic SXSW hordes into one simple (yet still enormous) line. The Austin police department, working in tandem with members of the Secret Service and TSA Agents, kept the crowds moving and the security process painless. The sense of excitement was palpable at the Long Center as the Austinite-heavy crowd, a blue speck of citizens in a very red state, prepared themselves to give the commander-in-chief a very warm welcome.

After an opening speech by Casey Gerald, President Obama took the stage with Evan Smith, editor-in-chief of The Texas Tribune, for a chat on “civic engagement in the 21st century.” It was a wide-ranging talk -- one that included a shout-out to local taco favorite Torchy’s as well as discussion of the legal battle between Apple and the FBI. But the main call to action went out to to the tech industry, as the commander-in-chief challenged the group to consider how their skills could upgrade any number of legacy systems.

“The reason I’m here is to recruit all of you,” he said. “We can start up coming up with new platforms, new ideas across disciplines and across skill sets to solve some of the big problems we’re facing today.”

In the talk, the president noted the infamous launch of the initial Affordable Care Act website -- and the massive overhaul it required almost immediately. (“This was embarrassing because I was the cool, early adopter president!” Obama joked). The debacle, he said, exposed the gaps between the digital technology being implemented by private industry and that being implemented by the government. “We had to bring in a SWAT team of all our friends from Silicon Valley and Austin and some of the best software engineers in the world to come in and fix it.”

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The end result, in part, was the creation of the U.S. Digital Services, a technology office that would assist all government agencies, as well as the push to seek solutions from private industries for legacy problems -- especially those created by outdated government software.

Outdated systems, said the president, slow nearly every government process including voting. “It is much easier to order a pizza [online] than it is for you to exercise your single most important task in a Democracy.” President Obama asked the audience to think about ways modern technology can redesign a range of systems, admitting that the IRS and DMV have for some become the face of government inefficiency.

For everyday citizens, fixing these systems could have an far-reaching impact. “If we make it easier, if it’s being done online, you have the capacity to interact with government in a way that gives you feedback about how your tax dollars are being spent and how this is important,” he said, “It’s a two-way exchange, instead of something that feels distant that you have no control over.”

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Of course, where technology is concerned, there’s not yet a level playing field. As Smith reminded the President, not every American has access to Wi-Fi and most students don’t have Internet outside the classroom. The President acknowledged these gaps and plans to bring high-speed Internet to rural communities and to 99 percent of American classrooms by 2018.

Making these changes, possible, however, requires the help of private industry. “One of the tricks to all of this is making sure that whatever government is doing is supplemented with and enhanced by private sectors that are ready to step up.”