JSI takes on South by Southwest Interactive

Originally a music festival, South by Southwest (SXSW) has grown into a sprawling annual event that brings together film, music, and emerging technology. Over the course of 10 days, thinkers, doers, and early adopters descend upon Austin, Texas, to share and exchange ideas, show off what they’ve been creating, or just to see what the future holds. Entrepreneurs come ready with thir pitch, knowing this event can be the time when their idea either takes off or fizzles. Energy permeates throughout the event, creating an atmosphere of creativity where anything is possible, even if only for the duration  of the event.

As the Internet has gone mainstream, and its use become a part of our daily lives, the interactive portion of the conference (referred to as SXSWi) has shifted in its content and attendee makeup. JSI was in attendance for the first time this year, joining the estimated 28,000 participants (a 10,000 person jump in attendance from last year). As the sole JSI attendee, I spent a lot of time representing the public health side of online health activity, and answered a ton of questions from people curious and excited about our work.

This was a good year for JSI to be in attendance – the growth of SXSWi has included an expansion of topics covered, many of which touch upon our own work. Last year a health track was added, and a government track was added only a few years ago. Relevant sessions included a discussion on designing for distance learning, health as a team sport, designing for behavior change, text4baby, and looking to the future of online/mobile health applications. You can see a list of health-related sessions here, and government-related sessions here.

If where sessions are physically placed is any indication of centrality to the event, then health and government still play a smaller role overall. Other than keynote events, health- and government-related conversations were largely held in a location a mile and a half away from the main convention center. That does not mean, however, that what they discussed was any less exciting. Where else could I sit in a room with approximately 20 others while the new media staff of the White House described their social media strategy, including beaming in Press Secretary Jay Carney via a Google+ hangout to answer any questions we might have? And then spend time afterwards with the staff, asking specific questions and sharing our work?

The growth of new media is opening new – and exciting! – doors for public health, and I would love to see more representation at SXSWi. I encourage you to apply to present, or simply attend this event to experience it for yourself. If you do go, my advice is to plan very little, allow for serendipity, and recognize that there is too much simultaneous activity to ever see everything you’d want to. The spontenaity of hallway chats, striking up conversation while waiting for one of the many events that run into the wee hours, or running into new friends while waiting on line at a food truck can prove to be some of the most meaningful parts of the whole event. In the end, I imagine this is what keeps people coming back.


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