President Barack Obama on the intersection between government and technology

From big data to the digital divide, President Barack Obama’s keynote address at this year’s SXSW festival highlighted his views on how technology should be harnessed to make the government run better and defended his digital legacy.

Technology has to inform and empower voters

Technology has to make civic participation easier, explained the president, who claimed that it’s “easier to order a pizza than it is to vote." The number of Americans heading to the polls each election has been dropping for the last fifty years and voting rights continues to be a highly contentious issue for the country.

“We’re the only advanced democracy in the world that makes it harder for people to vote,” bemoaned the president, who suggested that people should be able to cast their votes online. And while he admitted the government had come along way in regards to its embrace of digital – it’s now possible to apply for social security online in ways it couldn’t be done before – “we have more to tackle."

He revealed that his office is working with other organisations to establish a secure system to let people vote online.

“Our government wants to work out how we can capitalise on the positive empowering side of disruptive technology,” he urged. “We need to make sure we’re using big data, analytics and technology to make civic participation easier.”

More work needed to balance privacy and security

While he could not comment on the FBI’s tussle with Apple over the tech firm’s refusal to release data held on an iPhone, the president discussed the tensions that highlight the dispute between privacy and security. He acknowledged that the debate around encryption has become more complicated in the wake of Edward Snowden’s revelations about the National Security Agency’s data collection methods, but was adamant that a middle ground be met.

“We’re concerned about privacy, “he continued. “ We don’t want [security officials” to be poking through people’s phones willy-nilly." But he did stress the need for some compromise when it comes to privacy concerns in order to allow law enforcement organisations to access information that could help apprehend criminals.

“Everybody’s walking around with aa Swiss bank account in their pocket, so there has to be some concession for a need to get that information somehow,” said the president in a thinly veiled rebuke of what he deems the “absolutist” view held by some tech companies toward encryption.

"If your argument is strong encryption no matter what, and we can and should in fact create black boxes, that I think does not strike the kind of balance we have lived with for 200, 300 years. And it's fetishizing our phones above every other value. That can't be the right answer. I suspect the answer is going to come down to how do we create a system where the encryption is as strong as possible, the key is as secure as possible, it is accessible by the smallest number of people possible, on a subset of issues we deem is important."

The government and private companies need to unite to mend the digital divide

“I’m trying to solve every problem,” was the president’s response to concerns about the gap between those with access to digital technologies those without. He cited an initiative called the ‘Opportunity Network’, which installs Wi-Fi in low-income homes in rural areas, as testament to his efforts, though admitted greater cooperation between the government and the private sector is needed to bring about change at scale.

He claimed that if both parties can “use technology, data and social media in order to join forces around problems,” then “there’s no problem that we face in this country that’s not solvable”.

The tech industry needs to push digital harder to engage more people in the democratic process

The president called on the tech industry to play a bigger role in getting more people interested in the democratic process.

“We can’t solve the problems with government unless ‘we the people’ are paying attention,” he explained.

“In an age where people are getting their information through the internet and attention spans have shrunk it’s important that you the people who shape this space are thinking about it. There’s a way for you to shape this democracy in a way that has not been seen for a very long time.”

The link between the government and the technology sector has been in the president’s sights for some time, with programmes such as the Digital Service being formed under his watch to tackle specific national problems with digital-driven solutions. That “SWAT team” as the president describes it, is staffed with the best talent from Silicon Valley and “there’s no system they can’t make better,” he added.

The government has to become a better storyteller in a world where content spreads so rapidly

Part of the reason the government doesn’t appear to provide a “satisfactory solution” is because it has to take on the “hardest problems,” argued the president, who added that the “toughest problems are government problems so you’re never going to get 100 per cent satisfaction the way you might get that perfect coffee".

The private sector doesn’t have to work out how to “educate the poorest kids” or defend against a “terrorist cell," he continued.

“But when the government does great things, it gets taken for granted and is not a story....Everyday, the government is delivering for everybody in this room, whether you know it or not. Part of our task is to tell a better story. The government is often its own worst enemy in that it has to be more responsive in where people interact with it.”