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SXSW Interactive: Notes from the Field

SXSW Interactive BadgeEach March Austin, Texas hosts thousands as part of the South by Southwest (SXSW) festival. The event which has grown in size over the years now hosts three distinct programs, Interactive, Film, and Music. Because Austin is known as an academic and technology hub the Interactive portion of SXSW (SXSWi) has been a big draw for those interested in technology focused start-up businesses and innovations. In recent years SXSWi has helped launched popular apps, games, and other emerging technologies. SXSWi also attracts leaders in design, business, healthcare, and industry, who speak about their experiences and look to the event as a way to promote their projects as well as connect with future innovators. SXSWi is also anchored by a large trade show which features technology products, apps, and services from around the globe. SXSWi is a large event, in 2012 it was estimated that 20,000 people attended the Interactive portion alone.

This was my second year attending SXSWi and I was able to find a number of informative sessions and speakers that provided information on topics related to health sciences, technology, and emerging trends.

Comparing the health related sessions from 2013 and 2014 I noticed that the number of people interested in the same topics had more than doubled in size and the room where most of these health speaker panels took place was much larger than the year before. In addition, keynotes speakers such as 23andMe‘s Anne Wojcicki, who focused on health and technology attracted a large crowd.

The Future of Citizen Science, an emerging trend at SXSWi, supported by keynote speaker Adam Savage from the TV show Mythbusters, also received attention in health sessions. Jessica Richman, CEO of uBiome, provided an overview of resources and tools that are helping citizens become more involved with science. Tools discussed include SciStarter, “a service to find out about, take part in, and contribute to science through recreational activities and research projects,” Science Exchange, “a marketplace for scientific collaboration, where researchers can order experiments from the world’s best labs,” and many more.

Gregory Downing from the United States Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) spoke about the emerging role of open health data with a focus on the website Healthdata.gov. Joining the panel was Beverley Bryant, Director of Strategic Systems & Technology, for the National Health Service (NHS) England who was interested doing more to digitize specialized health services at the NHS by using strategies used by HHS to encourage the development of new Electronic Health Record (EHR) tools through government backed data challenges.

In areas of outreach the collaboration between private and non-profit entities was  another growth area. In the panel Mobile Technology Solutions for the Marginalized, a project aimed at creating a resource tool for a primarily homeless population in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood was realized only when a collaborative team made up of technology experts from a local technology company partnered with the non-profit Tenderloin Technology Lab as well as with professionals and social workers from the area. LinkSF provides a mobile interface with information not only for the homeless living in the area but also for social services and concerned citizens. The realization of this project serves as an example of the outreach efforts that can be created when technology and information come together to serve the specific needs of a special population.

SXSW Interactive Logo

Networking, an important part of SXSWi, allowed me to meet with some of the panel speakers as well as other entrepreneurs in the health start-up field. As one of the only medical librarians in attendance networking with these start-ups exposed them to the role of research librarians and health data. As healthcare and health data continue to evolve the need for information experts becomes obvious. In addition, many of those interested in the health start-up field do not have a medical or even research backgrounds. Many innovators have experience with programming, data, or design but not the resources that are available to assist with the projects they are developing. Again, the librarian can play a vital role in connecting these entrepreneurs with the information they need. For those interested in citizen science and even forming collaborative relationships to serve the needs of a community, the library is again another resource and community partner to be explored. Many libraries are now providing not only resources such as books or access to the internet, many are taking part in the marker movement, providing tools, special events, and even the space for individuals to learn and explore creative ideas.

Not surprising libraries and librarians make up a growing number of those in attendance at SXSWi. This year a section of SXSWi was devoted to maker spaces. Libraries had a presence in sessions speaking about the role of the library in the maker movement as well as in sessions devoted to data and privacy. Support for libraries was also seen on the trade show floor with the “Innovative Booth for Libraries” which was co-hosted by the Association of Rural and Small Libraries (ARSL), the Digital Library Federation (DLF), the Electronic Resources & Libraries conference, EveryLibrary, the Freedom to Read Foundation (FTRF), Urban Libraries Council (ULC), and Urban Librarians Unite (ULU) and supported by Innovative Interfaces. To learn more about libraries, archives, and museums and SXSWi visit the sxswLAM webpage.

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