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A Data Dystopia and a Lack of Women Haunt SXSW

Every attendee of South by Southwest Interactive (SXSWi) is fairly used to the yoga, the HTML5, the gaming, and the death of (or change in) journalism panels. Recent years have added a plethora of social media and mobile application panels, but for 2011 the crowds who voted on various panels to have fastened onto two new trends: data as a double-edged sword and a lack of women in technology and startups.

The Coming Data Dystopia According to SXSWi

The panels listed above illustrate the negative side of the growing use and sorting of data on people, places and objects, as well as a fear that corporations or governments aren’t using that data to benefit their customers. Sure, this is pretty obvious to anyone who feels like you can’t get something for nothing, but the rise of the surveillance market and governments accessing data as a means to curtail civil liberties or for other Orwellian purposes has really gained traction.

But Wait! Data Can Be a Force for Good Too!

The flip side of abundant and open access to data is that it can make everything from figuring out your commute easier to holding lawmakers and city governments accountable (all while counting your calories as you lose weight). The conference also highlights in several panels how the intersection of mobile handsets and connected medical devices with health data can change the way healthcare is delivered and potentially lower costs.

Women: Wherefore Art They?

Women in technology is perhaps the easier topic to handle given the issue has received mainstream attention this year from TechCrunch (s aol) and the Wall Street Journal (s nws). Personally, I think the issue is bubbling up because of two reasons: for one, women have always been entrepreneurial and now it’s easier for them to create “tech startups” that might appeal to other women and men without requiring deep technical expertise on their parts or on the parts of their audience (I am not saying women can’t be technical demigods, just that they are underrepresented in the traditionally tech-heavy professions).

The second reason is that those who build and create consumer businesses are realizing that their audience is no longer comprised solely of male geeks, but a wider swath of humanity that includes women, and so designing products and services that appeal to them and put their experiences first can make lots of money (I’m not saying men can’t design perfectly wonderful products aimed at women, just that a female perspective has more value as more women adopt technology). I wrote about the dearth of women last year, but this year, women are getting a share of the spotlight at SXSW. Let’s see how we use it.

I’ve been attending SXSW Interactive for nine years and have seen the conference grow from a relatively manageable festival for the emerging world of web design and blogs to a conference that tries to be all things to almost all of the softer segments of technology and geek culture. As that culture has expanded, so has the show, but the trends bubbling up each year are also good reflections of how the spread of technology is reshaping our culture.

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7 Responses to “A Data Dystopia and a Lack of Women Haunt SXSW”

  1. Interesting analysis, Stacey. I love the idea of drilling down to zeitgeist via a crowdsourced swath, and think it does provide a keen snapshot of a moment in techno-time.

    This is the 2nd year I’ll be hosting a core convo about the role moms play in the content ecosystem of influence. But I think there’s an even larger convo to be had about moms and technology- as the parent of three kids, one of whom is 14, I can tell you that parenthood drives my adoption of technology at a much more frantic pace than any of my other reasons for evolving. Quite simply, I will be outpaced and Oprah says the innerwebs will eat my children. I’m not alone- moms text to woo their kids to dinner.:) I’d be interested to know how, or if, those disparate usr groups are factored into tech design. Cheers! L

  2. Software has no innate gender bias. There is no “GMail for Men” or “iTunes, Woman only edition”.

    Any (false) perception of such is an artificial construct, and is liken to saying that microwave ovens make food for men, since the majority of Electrical Engineers are men.

    There’s only one move to make – Write a super awesome app that helps people do whatever it is they do…

    Then use SNL’s genderless “Pat” as your profile pic on the “About Us” page.

    • Software may have no inherent gender bias, but the designers might. Or maybe it’s not bias, just a blind spot on a particular issue or feature. For example, what about building a better swimsuit shopping app or an easy-to-find privacy setting in a location service to keep a creep from tracking you without going through a huge variety of menus and options? There are features and services that will appeal mostly to women just as their are features or services that will appeal mostly to men. More perspectives in designing software and applications can win over more users and benefit the business.

      • Neither of those examples display themselves in an IDE as “for women” or “for men”.

        How does the number of mouse clicks it takes to load a privacy policy have anything to do with what gender the user is?

        All shopping item types are rendered on the screen, assigned to the “buy” table in the database, etc using the same compiled machine code – It doesn’t matter if the item is a garment, a swimsuit, a jockstrap, or whatever.

        A professional software developer who is intentionally writing either more/less efficient code because the item type is a “woman’s product” would be laughed out of the industry.

  3. Stacey, are you leading or contributing to a session? I’ll be there (yes, launching my new company, like heaven knows how many others), and I’d be pleased to hear and/or meet you.

    I wonder whether any of those sessions will deal with the experiences of female entrepreneurs seeking funding. I’d guess that isn’t a pretty story.