ONS Digital @ SXSW

South by South West Interactive takes place in Austin, Texas every March and with almost 40,000 attendees is generally regarded as the largest technology conference in the world. It invades Downtown Austin taking over the Conference Centre, hotels, offices, bars and pretty much every scrap of land it can.

It gained fame as the venue where web companies like Twitter and Foursquare really took off and every year dozens of web start-ups try to use the event as a launchpad for their products.

This year they were joined by a middle aged civil servant talking about digital transformation in government in the UK and specifically the ONS Alpha project. As you can imagine they were queuing out of the door 😉

I’ve always wanted to attend SXSWi and back in September I submitted a talk proposal based on the ONS Alpha experience to date at that time as well as some hopes for the future. To my total surprise my proposal was successful (only a very small percentage of proposals actually make the final agenda despite the houge size of the event.)

In case anybody is thinking this sounds like something of a jolly on the public purse I actually paid for it all myself and took the time as holiday (well the conference ticket was gratis but I covered the flights and hotel etc myself.)

I gave my talk to a crowd of around fifty people on the second day of the five day ‘festival’. The attendees were particularly interested in the level of user research we had undertaken and the lessons we had learned from that as well as where we saw ourselves fitting in with the wider ‘open data’ agenda. While a few people utilised the ‘law of two feet’ and one person seemed to nod off (see tweet below) it seemed to go down well and there were a number of good questions from a very diverse audience.

It was great to meet Rebecca Williams from Data.gov in the US at my talk. She asked a number of great questions and we had a good conversation when the room had cleared as well. The familiarity of the challenges faced by our cousins across the Atlantic is both reassuring and a little concerning. We are all looking to each other for the answers but for now at least nobody really has it completely covered.

Rebecca recommended I meet Jeff Meisel, the Presidential Innovation Fellow based at the US Census Bureau and after a little Twitter stalking I was able to pick his brains for a couple of hours over a beer. Jeff and his team are focusing on improving the provision of APIs for Census data and making it more attractive for reuse by developers. They have been particularly inspired by the CitySDK work that started in Europe  and again I found the similarities of our challenges reassuring.  Jeff is also proposing that the Census Bureau invest in their own ‘digital services’ team that would operate in a very similar manner to the team I am lucky enough to be building here. There is much the teams will be able to learn from each other and I’m hoping we can share experiences, research and, eventually, code.

Elsewhere I also attended a talk from Jen Pahlka, Executive Director of Code for America and Mikey Dickerson, who leads the new US Digital Service. Their two-handed talk was a passionate advert for the need for digital capable people to join in and help ‘fix’ Government IT/digital. They had some compelling examples and were honest about how it was a potential disaster, the Healthcare.gov problems, that really provided the impetus to get so much change happening in Washington and beyond. Mikey Dickerson is something of a cult hero in my team as he is the man behind this quote;


I attended a few more vaguely work related sessions but if I’m honest got most excited by a sighting of Hulk Hogan and have to say all in all it was a very strange experience. Then I suppose Austin is very proud of being weird.