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SXSWi: My Five Highlights

Whilst in Austin last week for SXSW interactive (SXSWi), I felt like I was pacing the streets of Grand Theft Auto, expecting a shoot-out at a drugstore or brawls and broken chairs spewing out from the bars on 6th Street.

Whilst in Austin last week for SXSW interactive (SXSWi), I felt like I was pacing the streets of Grand Theft Auto, expecting a shoot-out at a drugstore or brawls and broken chairs spewing out from the bars on 6th Street. And then there was the mad mix of tex-mex, oil, cowboy boots, skyscrapers next to single story houses, Harleys, live bands, vodka tonic with no tonic, hicks, hippies, tattoos and, of course, coders everywhere.

Austin is a really unlikely and yet brilliant place for SXSWi - and with literally hundreds of amazing speakers & talks it was impossible for my 'newbie' companion and I to experience more than a fraction of it all. In between talks, we tried to beat the lunch queues, check-in at 'Foursquare forecourt' for the hell of it and catch a demo of the new Nike+ FuelBand, which is actually just a pedometer (but I'll buy one anyway).

Was there a big innovation that left me whooping? There was Highlight, a new app that tells you when your Facebook friends are nearby. Although, in spite of the trending and buzz, like so much else at the festival, Highlight doesn't feel much more than a 'software update'. If there was one theme at SXSWi that drew me in, however, it was how code and technology are adapting to create genuine enhanced value for the user. And to this end, here are my five highlights from SXSWi.

The first, was Dennis Crowley, Foursquare CEO, talking at length about how his 100 people company is trying to code beyond the frivolous gamefication of check-ins to ensure that genuine user-value through tips & offer is made central to the experience.

The Lego company's inspiring revival case study, presented by Wharton School's David Robertson, was my second and featured Lego's Cuusoo platform. Here Lego builders can post their own designs, have them rated by the community and published as an official box-set. Lego then creates value for the user by giving them the chance to earn a royalty.

The third was Jaron Lanier's rant. The computer scientist, musician & Hollywood movie-advisor insisted that a technology driven culture must give-back to society, otherwise it will destroy it. For instance, self-drive cars of the near-future are a good thing because they will standardise driving techniques, eliminate bad-driving and reduce accidents. But, consequently, millions of people worldwide who drive for a living will lose their jobs.

Facebook, Lanier argues, could give-back by paying people for creating magnetic content. This currently looks unlikely. "There is the Facebook you can see and the Facebook you cannot", Lanier says. And will Facebook continue to play nice? Is it beginning to think it owns your data? Maybe we should trust the individuals behind these data-hoarding companies... or, maybe not, as evidenced by my fourth example.

I didn't trust Napster and Facebook co-founder, Sean Parker, one bit. He co-presented with superstar Al Gore, making an impassioned bid to save US democracy through the internet. Al Gore called for an 'Online Occupied Democracy' and Parker slated the current electioneering model for being too TV driven, hypnotising Americans into basing their voting decision on 'cult of celebrity' alone.

Parker then unashamedly plugged his new business and software platform,, designed to help aspiring politicians build deeper engagement through campaign management and rich media tools. With one in six citizens set to lead one of America's 800,000 political offices in their lifetime, and a fee of anything between $19-$499 per month for a basic subscription to, Parker is set to cash-in from his 'democratic' cause.

My final and favourite people-friendly technology talk was by Jennifer Pahlka, CEO of Code for America. She has mobilised a community of civic coders "to help governments work better for everyone".

Currently the U.S spends $140bn p.a. on IT, and most of this money sustains very archaic, broken systems of the old 'IBM green screen' generation. Pahlka, has shown through altruistic hackathon initiatives that government IT can be made more useful to society and at half the cost. Her Adopt a Hydrant app is designed to empower citizens of wintery Boston to uncover snow-hidden water hydrants on behalf of the fire brigade. It has subsequently been customised to help Hawaiian citizens adopt and care for their local Tsunami warning sirens, hundreds of which are spread across their coastline. Here was a lesson on how technology can encourage community spirit and collaboration.

Upon reflection, I really did expect to return from SXSWi with at least a single story about the next big paradigm shift and I realise now that this was never going to happen. I've been reminded that technology only sticks if it makes what we already do easier, more enjoyable or useful. And that, in my mind, is breakthrough and brilliantly achievable.