Barack Obama and Irish tech firms converge on SXSW

President asks tech community for help in improving civic engagement in digital age

President Barack Obama had a long list of requests for the tech community at South by Southwest 2016 on Friday. As the first president to attend the two-week festival of music, film and technology held each year in Austin, Texas, he came asking for help with everything from improving civic engagement in the digital age to greater co-operation from the public on issues such as encryption and online security.

When the announcement was made earlier this week that the president would speak at SXSW, he said he would be asking “everyone for ideas and technologies to update our government and our democracy”.

In his second term, the president has reached out to the tech community more often, bringing in heavy hitters such as former Google executive Megan Smith and Twitter veteran Jason Goldman as advisers. Last month there were even reports that the White House was planning to appoint a chief information security officer.

Another goal of the president’s visit was to urge the tech community to address challenges such as online extremism and poor voter turnout.


Mr Obama also wants to examine how government and the tech sector can interact more deeply, rather than simply in the context of the dispute over data encryption between Apple and the US administration.

Mr Obama spoke on the opening day of SXSW Interactive, the technology arm of the festival, which has recently expanded into other areas, such as psychology, politics, sport and business.

Ireland’s startup scene

As Ireland’s tech startup scene grows, so too does its presence at SXSW Interactive, where thousands of entrepreneurial hopefuls from around the world congregate each year for an event that is now firmly established on the tech calendar.

Enterprise Ireland and the IDA have had their stalls set up at the festival for several years now, but have also become further entrenched in the Austin tech startup scene through the establishment of Ireland House Austin this time last year.

This year the Irish entourage has been joined by Dublin startup commissioner Niamh Bushnell. New tech firms to make the journey to Texas include Kong Digital, Intuition, Overhaul, UrbanFox and Galvanic.

The last-minute addition of the president and first lady Michelle Obama to the ever-growing SXSW roster was seen as a major coup, but it was a headache for local security and residents. Since the festival first began in 1987, SXSW has grown year on year, with several thousand people visiting the city over two weeks, leading to gridlock, road closures, crowds and increased police presence.

SXSW runs until March 20th

John Holden

John Holden

John Holden is a contributor to The Irish Times specialising in science, technology and innovation