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Data If You Do, Data If You Don't

Examining the top trends at SXSW Interactive: It's all about data

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Image Think creates a graphic visualization of a Big Data session about connected cars. Photo by Matt McGinnis

While SXSW Interactive may have made its name as the event where blockbuster technologies like Twitter and Foursquare launched, it’s also become a circus of brand exhibitionists. Yes, it is a bloated hype machine where celebrities like Kevin Bacon and Shaquille O'Neal appear along with companies like Samsung and Chevy who drop insane piles of cash to capture attention, but it is still one of the most influential gatherings of technorati sharing ideas and addressing some of the most pressing issues in technology.

This year an estimated 30,000 visitors clogged downtown Austin to launch their products, do business, hear the next big thing, network and, of course, party. Here are a few of the hottest topics from SXSW Interactive 2014.

Prying eyes
Fear of Big Brother and the tech community’s response to prying eyes was front and center this year. Several sessions drilled into how our personal data is collected and used for everything from better ad campaigns to helping improve safety while driving. Speakers discussed ways to find the balance between improving consumer experiences with protecting personal data privacy online.

Government surveillance and data collection was another big topic with the loudest roars coming from Julian Assange, Glenn Greenwald (the journalist who broke the story about the National Security Agency and PRISM) and Edward Snowden. Speaking through a wonky Skype connection from the Ecuadorian embassy in London, Assange, founder of WikiLeaks, cajoled the audience in Austin to curtail the surveillance powers of the NSA and what he called the militarization of the internet.  

Assange said, “How can individuals do something about it? Well, we’ve got no choice.”

Joining by video from Russia, NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden also encouraged the gathering of tech experts to take action saying, "the people who are in the room in Austin right now, they are the folks who can really fix things. They can enforce our rights through technical standards, even if Congress hasn't yet gotten to the point of creating legislation to protect our rights."

Wearing your data on your sleeve  
It’s becoming more commonplace to see people wearing devices like Fitbits and Google Glass. If the many wearable-focused sessions at SXSW are any indication, the popularity of this technology is about to go beyond fitness to transform how we interact with brands.

For example, Visa imagines a day when we will be able to walk through a store and make a purchase with just a few gestures using Google Glass. For its part, Google hopes to capitalize on its success with Android-based smart phones by releasing a software development kit for wearable devices.

It’s not just the big boys. In a competition that drew 48 companies, Silicon Valley startup Skully Helmets won the Best Wearable Tech of SXSW 2014 prize for its augmented-reality motorcycle helmet that lets driver see around them in every direction with cameras mounted in the helmet.

Big data
Making sense of seas of data collected by everything from our smart phones to our cars was a big topic yet again at SXSW Interactive. Panelists discussed using the massive stream of personal data to allow marketers to track consumer patterns, including how social media strategists are looking for clues among the tweets.

Social data analytics firm Gnip described how the company can overlay a massive visualization of three billion geo-tagged tweets on digital maps from Mapbox. Using this data, the company is able to show specific demographic information such as what devices people are using in central Austin compared to the suburbs. 

Just as the amount of aggregated personal and corporate data is growing exponentially, so too are the opportunities for brands to create useful and engaging experiences by understanding all of that information.

Between appearances by Jimmy Kimmel and Justin Bieber, the hundreds of parties with free booze and the ostentatious corporate pavilions, it's good to know there are still plenty of engaging conversations and important ideas exchanged at SXSW Interactive.  

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