U.S. CTO Megan Smith on the Power of Tech at SXSW

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This is the first story of EQ’s SXSW coverage. Check out the rest here.

Civic engagement and technology used as a force for good were two of the most-discussed topics at South By South West Interactive this year. They were especially front and center in Austin last Friday, when President Obama made the first-ever appearance of a sitting POTUS at the popular two-week conference, this year in its 30th edition.

After the President’s conversation with Texas Tribune CEO Evan Smith, EQ spoke with Chief Technological Officer Megan Smith about how she and her colleagues harness the power of data, information and technology for the American people and the world.

Smith was also part of a panel discussion with members of the U.S. Digital Service titled “We the People: Using Tech to Solve Big Challenges”.

If you missed Obama’s keynote, you can watch it in its entirety here.


The President said if we use technology in the right way, there is no problem that isn’t solvable. What do you base this optimism on?

If all of us get involved, if we all bring our talent and leverage these digital tools and technology like synthetic biology, the human genome and the work on precision medicine, personalized health, cures for cancer – if we involve creativity, that’s when we can do that. And here we are at South By South West with extraordinary artists, filmmakers, coders, engineers and others working together in the passionate innovation community from across the country and across the world – what a great place to come together and say ‘How do we get to this place where we have these things that can deliver food, provide sharing services for cars. And when we also include that innovation on our most intractable problem – poverty, climate, when we can come together. It’s really about teamwork.

Can you name a few specific examples?

When you bring up your phone or turn on the TV, you can see the weather. That weather information, that multi-billion dollar industry, sits on top of government satellites and organizations like NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), same with maps on your phone, it sits on top of U.S. Geological Survey and others. We’ve launched a project called Opportunity Project – if you go to Opportunity.census.gov, you can find data sets that are there from census, from the Department of Labor, from Housing and Urban Development, our most important agencies that are surveying some poorer Americans and all Americans. On Monday last week, we launched the Opportunity Project, and there’s now at least a dozen different players – for-profits, non-profits, who have built services like great schools team. It’s about where you live – how about the transit to my job, and so on. How can we help Americans have these tools to help themselves.

What are some international projects you are working on?

The President started the Open Government Partnership. We are now at almost 70 countries that have joined us. The countries are working on transparency and openness, and each country has its own national action plan. Part of that is civic tech, part of it is digital gov. We try to bring techies from Silicon Valley, Austin, Boston to join our technical and policy team to really modernize how we are approaching our service delivery. If we can bring in Amazon and Facebook and Twitter, why can’t we deliver government services better. And it’s a movement all over the world.


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Benjamin came to Missouri all the way from Germany to get a Master's degree in Communications at Lindenwood University. In the spring of 2013, he sailed around the world on a ship with 600 college students and 10 startups, which made him realize that he wants to pursue a career at the intersection of journalism and entrepreneurship. He is an avid traveler, football player (American football, yes), and collector of new ways of thinking.