What I learned at SXSW Interactive 2011

I’ve just spent the past few days in a dizzying whirl of activity around SXSW Interactive (or SXSWi)- between ACT Lobby Day yesterday and Monday testifying in/monitoring 3 committees on 7 bills, it was tough to make it to everything I wanted, but over the weekend I had some really amazing experiences.

SXSW logoBy far, the most positive thing I’ve seen here was SXSW had a panel organized on the fly- all about how to help Japan. I knew we were discussing it in different places, but in less than 48 hours from tragedy striking, there were some of the best minds in tech and thought leaders from various industries working together to make disaster relief a priority:   sxsw4japan.org: How You Can Impact Earthquake Relief Absolutely amazing to me the good will and nature of people willing to come together to help complete strangers halfway across the globe. We are blessed to live in such a time.

One of the best panels I went to was Why My Phone Should Turn Off the Stove.

Most appliances now are incredibly “Smart” in terms of both their energy usage and ability to network together. If we’re going to solve problems like climate change, or even just help people spend less on their electric bills, having things automated through a smart electrical meter, a smart grid, and to your computer or smartphone is a great idea. The most expensive (and polluting, by the way) power your utility has to buy/produce is during peak times when demand is high. If you got a push notification from your electric company saying that they can save you $5 (or maybe $25) over the next 2-3 hours if you let them cycle your refrigerator and freezer or to change your thermostat by 1 or 2 degrees, I think people would like that. If you forget to turn the dishwasher on in the morning, or want to set up a load of laundry but don’t want to turn it on until off-peak consumption hours, all of these things are possible. However, people have been slow to adopt this new technology, even though it exists today. So the key to adoption is using other models that are already working– social networks, rewards for setting and keeping certain goals, and in the case of like a Groupon model, maybe even something tangible: save 75 kWh of electricity, get a free coffee from Starbucks? The only thing missing from the panel? Where were the guys from Austin Energy? PEC? CPS? Bluebonnet? Encor? Reliant? Because it’s going to require a utility-scale model to realize the potential of efficiency and especially to implement some of these social networking or reward-based systems. We also had a great discussion during the Q&A section about the rollout of smart meters around the country. Everyone agreed utilities need to engage in better education and more transparency when implementing these programs.

The next panel, Make Citizens Social: Digital Participation in Public Services , was equally amazing, and it was more of a discusion, led by two guys from Denmark about how they had been able to open up a lot of government functions to people via the internet so Danes were more active in government. Included in our group discussion were a member of the German Parliament, a former Mayor of Palo Alto, a lobbyist for Iran-Afghanistan Veterans of America, and several student from the LBJ School of Public Policy at UT), but the single best comment I heard all session was from a guy who had been at CPAC (Conservative Political Action Committee– a HUGE event in Washington DC every year for conservative activists) and had been talking with some young self-described Ron Paul types who said, “Washington is so screwed up- we need everyone to go back and run for office if we ever want our issues (transparency and open government). Run for City Council, run for County Council, run for State Legislature- and make those issues ours.” Specifically, their interest is to end juicy state contracts with technology and software providers when they can be replaced by open-source and open architecture solutions, saving taxpayers money. I’m all for that, but we also need greater transparency to stave off corruption, and we also need more participation because without participation we are not truly citizens- we’re just subjects.

The most ironic panel I tried to attend was Can You Trust Me?, which was supposed to be about loss of brand trust due to social irresponsibility… and the presenter didn’t show up. He was supposed to talk about BP, and Toyota, and Bank of America and why we should or shouldn’t trust those brands. So, Can You Trust Me?– “No,” I can’t trust you.

The last panel I attended Friday was Offline America, Why We Have A Digital Divide . Folks, I am glad I live in the Austin area with decent broadband penetration. We have some serious problems preventing folks in rural areas (and poor areas around major cities) from getting broadband penetration. The good news is, policies at both the local and national level can change this. The bad news is it’s going to cost money- the same way rural electrification did. We can’t possibly expect the next generation of kids to function in new high tech industries if 22% of all households don’t have access to the internet at all. What would’ve happened to Mark Zuckerberg had he not grown up with computers and the internet around him? How many future Zuckerbergs are we leaving behind today?

An amazing SXSWi. And this was barely the tip of the iceberg. I also did some reviews for my friends over at BigShinyRobot of the video games and other more fun and social aspects of the festival. Oh, and the Foo Fighters.

Anyway, what I look forward to most is using this knowledge to help promote Public Citizen’s priorities over the coming months, and to be able to devote the full week necessary to SXSW 2012 when the Legislature is not in session and the convention can get the attention it deserves.