A Data Dystopia and a Lack of Women Haunt SXSW

Every attendee of South by Southwest Interactive (SXSWi) is fairly used to the yoga, the HTML5, the gaming, and the death of (or change in) journalism panels. Recent years have added a plethora of social media and mobile application panels, but for 2011 the crowds who voted on various panels to have fastened onto two new trends: data as a double-edged sword and a lack of women in technology and startups.

The Coming Data Dystopia According to SXSWi

The panels listed above illustrate the negative side of the growing use and sorting of data on people, places and objects, as well as a fear that corporations or governments aren’t using that data to benefit their customers. Sure, this is pretty obvious to anyone who feels like you can’t get something for nothing, but the rise of the surveillance market and governments accessing data as a means to curtail civil liberties or for other Orwellian purposes has really gained traction.

But Wait! Data Can Be a Force for Good Too!

The flip side of abundant and open access to data is that it can make everything from figuring out your commute easier to holding lawmakers and city governments accountable (all while counting your calories as you lose weight). The conference also highlights in several panels how the intersection of mobile handsets and connected medical devices with health data can change the way healthcare is delivered and potentially lower costs.

Women: Wherefore Art They?

Women in technology is perhaps the easier topic to handle given the issue has received mainstream attention this year from TechCrunch (s aol) and the Wall Street Journal (s nws). Personally, I think the issue is bubbling up because of two reasons: for one, women have always been entrepreneurial and now it’s easier for them to create “tech startups” that might appeal to other women and men without requiring deep technical expertise on their parts or on the parts of their audience (I am not saying women can’t be technical demigods, just that they are underrepresented in the traditionally tech-heavy professions).

The second reason is that those who build and create consumer businesses are realizing that their audience is no longer comprised solely of male geeks, but a wider swath of humanity that includes women, and so designing products and services that appeal to them and put their experiences first can make lots of money (I’m not saying men can’t design perfectly wonderful products aimed at women, just that a female perspective has more value as more women adopt technology). I wrote about the dearth of women last year, but this year, women are getting a share of the spotlight at SXSW. Let’s see how we use it.

I’ve been attending SXSW Interactive for nine years and have seen the conference grow from a relatively manageable festival for the emerging world of web design and blogs to a conference that tries to be all things to almost all of the softer segments of technology and geek culture. As that culture has expanded, so has the show, but the trends bubbling up each year are also good reflections of how the spread of technology is reshaping our culture.

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