TechTank’s annual review: South by Southwest Interactive 2015

It’s South by Southwest Interactive (SXSWi) time again in Austin. During last year’s conference, TechTank reviewed our top five issues for tech policy. These included 1) privacy, surveillance, civil liberties, and Snowden, 2) mHealth’s future: devices and data transforming the health care industry, 3) wearables and the governance issues they raise, 4) the record number of D.C. legislators attending the conference, and 5) advancing the drone debate.

Even at innovation’s breakneck speed, all of these issues still remain relevant one year later. Since then, we’ve taken a look at each issue in turn in our reports, events and other research initiatives. Now we revisit three more tech policy issues that we will be watching this year, in addition to highlighting some Brookings staff who are presenting at South by Southwest 2015 this week.


A Robot Petting Zoo?


The inaugural SXSW Robot Petting Zoo brings out “friendly ground & aerial robots for SXSW attendees to touch, operate, and even program.” The fascination with robots and drones as agents that can both aid and destroy continues. We also have taken a deep-dive into human-robotic interaction, launching “The Robots are Coming: The Project on Civilian Robotics.”

In this Brookings series, expert authors examined how robot design considerations today can foreshadow policy choices in the future, how the law will respond as we become more cyborg-like, the potential case for a Federal Robotics Commission, and legislation issues for driverless cars and drones. While the petting zoo is a cute concept, it accurately represents the dynamics impacting roboticists, legislators, and the public. Currently, SXSW has a “no drones policy” though drones may be allowed in trade areas where certain safety measures are implemented.

Politicians leave the beltway bubble for SXSW

D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser took office earlier this year and is currently reevaluating the tech-engagement strategy handed to her by former Mayor Vincent Gray. For SXSW, Gray “had budgeted $475,000 to hire the nonprofit Washington, D.C. Economic Partnership to represent the city. But when Bowser came into office, that amount came under scrutiny, given the city’s poor financial outlook.” Although Mayor Bowser eventually cut the funding down to $350,000, she recently announced that she will still be attending, and D.C. will be represented at the Interactive portion of the festival from March 13 -17.

We DC” transforms an “exclusive location across from the Austin Convention Center” for five days where guests can recharge and learn about what D.C. has to offer technopreneurs. One of the goals of this effort is to “brand DC as a national technology hub”. It’s a way for D.C. to market itself as innovation focused city that can support startups.

National politicians also recognize the need to foster relationships with the tech community. Potential 2016 presidential contender Rand Paul will address participants at SXSW this year, aiming to reach the youth vote. In addition, his “digital guru” Vincent Harris is based in Austin, and the Kentucky senator has even opened an office in Silicon Valley. 
3.    Visas, Immigration and the Tech Industry


This year, a panel with participants from Microsoft, the White House’s U.S. Digital Service team, and the Departments of State and Homeland Security will examine the state of visas for foreign tech workers in the U.S. The speakers will focus on how the government is “working in the U.S. and abroad to ensure that qualified workers come to the United States, and hear how their agencies planning for the future of visas and the tech industry.”

Darrell West, Director of the Center for Technology Innovation at Brookings, writing about this issue has argued that the speed at which the country hits the H1-B Visa Cap demonstrates the need for immigration reform. More broadly, the director of SXSW Hugh Forrest has written that international participation at the Interactive festival continues to grow, citing “Startup Village” as a main driver for this increase in global conference-goers.


Brookings at SXSW:


–          Beth Akers, “Reconciling the Reality and Rhetoric of Student Loans,” March 11

–          George Burroughs “Breaking Up with TED,” March, 14

–          David Nassar, “Longform Journalism: What Is it and What’s Next?,” March 15


More TechTank posts available here