I’ve just spent the last three days at SxSW. Yes it’s insane. Yes people drink too much. And yes there is good stuff to be had. Some of it in the sessions. Some of it just by having conversations with old friends and new acquaintances.
As in past years it’s hard to decide what to sit through. Often two or three interesting subjects occur at the same time. How overcrowded Asian Cities Inspire Innovation. Or Snowden 2.0: A Field Report from the NSA Archives. I went with Snowden. Cory Doctorow as interviewer and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Barton Gellman as interviewee were both great. Better even than Snowden himself, piped in remotely, during his appearance in the next session.
There were some central, unifying themes this year. Big data was evident in everything from startups pitching new data-driven platforms, to the profit motives (somewhat disguised as altruism) of companies mapping our genes, to IBM’s Watson-informed lunch truck. Global impact and policy had an entire track. As did content and distribution, art, science and inspiration, design and development and health and business. And, of course, there were sensors. Embedded in everything from appliances to the human body.
I thought about sticking to one track but instead chose the tasting menu approach. Here are some random thoughts that stuck with me.
There are big opportunities in un-sexy
Seventy percent of a construction worker’s time is spent standing around. Thirty percent working. No wonder the Bay Bridge, not to mention the Big Dig, missed deadlines and came in way over budget. Fieldwire, a SxSW Accelerator finalist, demonstrated how it can invert the percentages by dispatching and tracking tasks in real time and documenting and analyzing performance. Big opportunity and genuine interest from investors. Other data based services were in industries as un-sexy as insurance and online identity verification. They’ll probably all make millions.
We have a culture crisis, not an education crisis
Inventor Dean Kamen —Segway, prosthetic arm, insulin pump, portable dialysis — made a great point in arguing that by celebrating and glorifying athletes and entertainers we fail to drive kids toward science, math and tech. But the trick isn’t to point fingers or place blame; it’s to copy what the NBA and Hollywood do. So he created usfirst.org, which treats kids who do tech — building robots is a big part of the program — as heroes. Good idea.
Coca Cola does some good things
Coke made its distribution system — the only one that goes deep enough into remote, poverty stricken corners of the world that need potable water — available to distribute Slingshot (another Kamen invention) helping bring clean, drinking water to places like Ghana and Paraguay. No other company or medical related organization could accomplish that. Granted if people die of water-borne diseases they can never buy a Coke, but still, this is a noble initiative on Coke’s part.
There is huge money to be made in obesity and illness
Before she founded 23andMe to map your genome (just $99.00 if the FDA reinstates permission), Anne Wojcicki worked on Wall Street identifying investment opportunities in pharmaceutical companies that made drugs to treat obesity and other illnesses. It’s huge business and far more profitable to treat than to prevent. Especially for doctors and hospitals. 23andMe will make money, too, but ideally from helping people avoid disease and, of course, selling their meta data. Nothing in medicine happens without a profit incentive.
We give way too much credit to famous names
Randi Zuckerberg interviewed Dana Brunetti the producer behind House of Cards and also The Social Network. I walked out after 10 minutes of lightweight banter three bad jokes about how The Social Network was the Zuckerberg family’s home movie. Not sure what any of it had to do with the future of media, online branding or the fusion of Silicon Valley and Hollywood as was advertised.
Facebook gets only five percent of what it knows about you from you; the rest comes from friends
You don’t want to share your home address or phone number? That’s OK. It’s in your friends address book and chances are they didn’t keep it private.
Social startups have a big opportunity in encryption
The existing advertising based platforms, from Twitter to Facebook and even Google, can and will do some end-to-end encryption to protect you. But they can’t secure your data entirely as they’re business models are based on giving data to advertisers. New platforms can create different models, perhaps subscription supported, instead of ad supported, and offer much better security. If the consumer market decides that’s important, we might see some changes on the social media front.
I’ll be back in a few days — after traveling and recovering — with more.
Thanks for reading.