President Obama speaks at SXSW, addresses role of technology in government

Cat Cardenas and Megan Hix

President Barack Obama told South By Southwest Interactive attendees he was there to recruit them at his keynote address Friday afternoon, asking the crowd to play an active role in the developing relationship between government and technology.

“Part of my challenge is to find ways our government can be a part of the positive change that is taking place,” Obama said.

He suggested that technology could be optimized to make civic participation and daily interactions with the government — such as going to the DMV or filing a FAFSA for financial aid — easier for Americans. Doing so, Obama stressed, relies on collaboration with private-sector innovators, something he learned after bringing in a “SWAT team” of experts to fix the website.

While addressing voter technology, for example, the President made a point to remind the audience that Texas has one of the lowest voter turnouts in the country, something that could be improved with online voting and registration.

“We systematically put up barriers and make it as hard as possible for our citizens to vote,” Obama said. “It’s easier for you to order pizza than it is for you to exercise the most important task in a democracy, and that is selecting who's going to represent you in government.”

Sonoko Takahashi, a SXSW attendee from the Netherlands, attended the keynote and said Obama motivated the crowd to start their own initiatives and collaborate with the government.

“We shouldn’t sit and wait until the government does something — it’s really about us,” Takahashi said. “South By Southwest is not about looking for the next cool thing, but what you can do with that and what you can do to solve problems.”

While not directly commenting on Apple’s fight against the FBI, Obama told the crowd not to take an absolutist view and instead, search for a balance between safety and privacy.

"How do we create a system where encryption is as strong as possible, … accessible by smallest number of people possible for a subset of issues we agree are important?” Obama said. “How we decide that is not something I have the expertise to do, but I’m way on the civil liberties side of this thing.”

Humor also played a role in the address, with Obama cracking jokes about “trying to get a signal” on his cell phone and poking fun at the Internet meme “Thanks, Obama.”

The President concluded his speech with a call to action and a promise to continue fighting for his beliefs, even after leaving the White House.

"Whatever your interests are, whatever your passions are, whatever your concerns are, we need you,” Obama said. “In 10 months, I won’t have this office… But it’s not like I’m going to stop being involved in promoting the best, most prosperous, most peaceful, most tolerant, most ecologically responsible America that I can.”