SXSW Interactive started off with a bang, as President Barack Obama visited Austin to participate in a SXSW Interactive keynote presentation at the Long Center for the Performing Arts. SXSW Interactive guests were invited to enter an online lottery to win a ticket to attend the president’s keynote presentation, which marked the first time a sitting president participated in SXSW.

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Prior to the event, around 2,000 SXSW Interactive goers gathered outside the Palmer Events Center, forming a long line as they waited to be seated to hear the president’s speech.

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The presentation began with Hugh Forrest, the Director of SXSW Interactive, who stepped on the stage with enthusiasm, referring to the president’s visit as “the most special event in 30 years at SXSW.”

Taking the form of an interview, Obama’s presentation touched on 21st century civic engagement and community service. Evan Smith, CEO, Founder and Editor-In-Chief of The Texas Tribune interviewed Obama. The president began his speech with love for Austin, claiming that he likes any excuse to visit the city.

Obama is known for choosing a new place to eat every time he comes to town. This time, the president chose Torchy’s Tacos for lunch. “I had The Democrat…but then I had The Republican…and then The Independent because I wanted to give all a proper hearing,” Obama jokingly said,, referring to the names of several popular tacos available at Torchy’s.

Obama then expressed his true reason for visiting SXSW: to recruit SXSW Interactive attendees to come up with new ideas across different platforms to solve various problems in technology, civic life, and in the White House. “We can start coming up with new platforms, new ideas across disciplines and across skill sets to solve some of the big problems we’re facing today,” he said.

For example, the president said, when the government determined that some of the software it used was outdated, the government brought in top talent from Google, Facebook, and other innovative companies to upgrade the outdated systems to more modern technology.

The president stressed the importance of harnessing technological skills to form digital purpose so millions can be helped. He said there are different ways for people to get engaged to make a difference.

One topic Obama touched on was how difficult it is to vote. “We make it hard to vote. It’s easier to order pizza, or book a vacation than it is to select who’s going to represent your government,” he said. He mentioned that we need to redesign our systems so there’s not a low rate of voter turnout.  “We’re trying to engage folks for how we can create safe, secure systems for people to vote online, and to be more aware of who they’re voting for,” the president said.

Another topic President Obama addressed was the belief that the government doesn’t do any good, or that they haven’t proven to do any good, for its citizens. Obama rebutted the claim with the example of those who look on their phone to check the weather. “Well, the government has a geolite satellite system rotating over earth,” he said. He also brought up the fact that the government is what keeps others from invading our country.

Continuing his talk on technology, Obama said that he hopes we can one day extend the digital space to communities that might not be able to afford it. ConnectED is an initiative that aims to deliver high speed wireless Internet to 99 percent of classrooms by 2018.

“It’s not enough just to focus on the cool next thing. We’ve got to harness that technology so that everybody can use it,” he said.


The end of the interview touched on Apple and the FBI and privacy concerns, where Obama urged against “absolutist” views. The key, he said, is strong encryption and only accessing data from someone’s phone when the issue is important and there is probable cause.

Time ran out before the attendees could ask the president questions, but Obama jokingly interrupted Smith saying they could go one more minute because he is the president, afterall.