Civic Tech at SXSW Interactive

| Matt Stempeck

It was a big year for civic tech at SXSW Interactive. I first went to SXSWi in 2008, when I worked at Echo & Co. building online communities for nonprofits. I was surprised then how strongly the nonprofit and social impact communities were represented at what I had previously considered a tech conference. To be sure, the experiential marketers are also there in force, and the streets are saturated with their freebies and faux protests against artificial intelligence. But SXSW organizers and panel voters have also dedicated a significant portion of the formal and informal programming to our work: using technology-driven opportunities to address shared challenges. There’s even an entire SXSW Eco spin-off conference around sustainability in October. I won’t list everything here, but some civic tech highlights included:

US Chief Technology Officer (and fellow Media Lab graduate) Megan Smith on the main stage.

Sometimes, when everyone you work with is excited about how the federal government is improving how it uses technology, you forget that many people still haven’t heard about the new momentum represented by government agencies like the US Digital Services and 18F. Megan Smith’s keynote appearance was a clear sign that yes, the world is paying attention to this burgeoning sector we call civic tech.

The Knight Foundation County Fair

It’s hard to overstate the role the Knight Foundation has played in providing seed funding, convenings, and field-defining research to the civic tech sector. If you ever questioned the centrality of their node in the civic graph, their County Fair party last Sunday would convince you. Civic tech startups like AskThem, Code2040, and the Open Elections project demoed their work while the bold names of civic tech mingled amongst jugglers and stiltmen. (Disclaimer: the Knight Foundation funded my graduate degree via the Center for Civic Media).

Harvard Business School’s Digital Initiative

When you first hear “Harvard Business School“, your mind may not jump to civic tech, but the Digital Initiative, directed by former Berkmananiac Colin Maclay, is reshaping the institution around many of the same schools of thought that inform our movement: design thinking, iterative innovation, and experimental approaches to global-scale online education. Bonus points for offering cornhole and limited-edition screenprinted t-shirts of armadillos sporting Harvard sweaters.

Lastly, a big thank you to my co-panelists, Denise Cheng and Jenn Louis, for inviting me to join them in discussing trust online, and to MIT Technology Review for letting me try on the largest brass rat on the planet.

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