Obama Talks Tech, Government, Politics At SxSW

March 11, 2016       Megan Keane      

AUSTIN, TEXAS — President Barack Obama stopped by the SxSW Interactive Festival an hour-long conversation on tech and empowerment with Evan Smith, CEO and Editor-in-Chief of the Texas Tribune. The President outlined areas the government is trying to use technology to support and empower citizens:

* How can we make government work better through technology and digital platforms? According to the President, applying for financial aid and social security has gotten easier from bringing these processes online.

* How can you leverage technology to tackle big problems in new ways? We have the ability to cure diseases, the President said, due to research on the human genome. Research is being done all over the country and we able to use technology to bring that research together and ensure, “that the whole is better than its parts.”

* How can we use big data, analytics, and technology to make civic participation easy? With so many people working on the ground, government must use technology to enable community organizations and activists to meet up and help shape our society in new ways.

However, a challenge raised by Smith is that the cultures of technology and government cultures are incompatible, with technology companies known for being fast and sleek and government known for being slow and bloated.

Obama said there are two challenges at work here — changing perceptions and changing processes. On the latter, he brought up the botched launch of healthcare.gov, citing an outdated procurement process. In response, Obama said he convened a technology swat team of sorts, with the top software engineers from companies like Google and Facebook to advise departments across the federal government.

On the former, the President admitted that it’s time to change the perception of government, “Every day government is delivering to everyone in this room, whether they realize it or not.” An example he offered is GPS, which relies on government satellites.

While people might rely on government, they don’t seem to engage it with only 55 of registered voters casting ballots in the Presidential election. Technology can address this, according to the President, by making it easier for people to register to vote.

But, Smith noted that many Americans aren’t online at all, citing the huge income and race disparity in access to technology. “Shouldn’t government make sure everyone is in the digital space to begin with,” he asked.

The President discussed his efforts extend access to communities across the country. He applauded projects like ConnectEd, to bring WiFi into classrooms and The Opportunity Network to increase access. “These are solvable problems, but it’s not a matter of us passively waiting for someone else to solve it. That’s part of the mindset that I’m trying to break,” he said.

The President said that government works better in many areas for which it doesn’t get credit because people only see what’s not working. Additionally, government has to take on the hardest problems. “If we could reconceive the boundaries between the private, nonprofit, and government sectors, open these up, and use technology and social media to join forces around problems, then no problem that isn’t solvable. It’s not enough to just focus on what’s the cool next thing; we need to ask how we use it.”

Obama wrapped up with submitted question about the recent news on Apple’s stance on surveillance. He cautioned against taking an absolutist perspective on the issue. The dangers are real and it’s trying to strike a balance between privacy and threats to the values our country holds dear.

While there’s a lot of work to be done, the President promised he was not going anywhere after his term ends, and plans to continue the digital strides government has made to solve problems. He concluded, “If the brainpower here takes the baton, I’m going to be really confident that we can find solutions.”

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