Themes of SXSW 2014: Context, Privacy and IOT

By Jacob Voncannon | Mar 20, 2014

Over the past 6 years my time at SXSW has deeply affected my career path and the way I think about business, innovation, and the advancement of technology. Typically, at the different SXSW events I’ve attended, we’ve seen the launch of major consumer social products like Twitter in 2007, Foursquare in 2009, Foodspotting in 2010, and GroupMe in 2011. This year there wasn’t a standout application that stole all of the buzz, but rather a groundswell of conversation around how to provide context to users, protecting people’s privacy, and debate about how the ecosystem of the Internet of Things (IoT) play into the future technology and experience landscape.

Context is king

The focus on context and mobile came to no surprise to the 10 ChaiOne employees we took to SXSW. Just as content is king to the web, context is king to mobile. With all of the data being gathered by mobile apps, consumers are now demanding personalized and contextual experiences that understand our location, motion, time of day, weather, orientation, and proximity to other devices and objects. The disturbing thing we found though was that most of the conversations at SXSW were around how to give consumers relevant advertising in a store rather than create experiences beyond retail marketing and advertising. Obviously many of the conversations around context and mobile are in their infancy state, but we need to start thinking about how context changes the way we interact with technology rather than trying to offer someone a more relevant coupon. Being a marketer, I know that marketers ruin everything.

See photos from our trip to SXSW here.

The phrase “big data” also continues to get thrown around a fair amount with context. Although big data is a nebulous term that can mean a multitude of things, in the framework of context we start to talk about how we can find correlations of data that create richer experiences. By being able to analyze data sets in the size of terabytes eventually we might even be able to create predictive context that can anticipate what you’re going to do next. This could help you accomplish a task more efficiently or get somewhere faster and more effectively.

Privacy, the elephant in the room

With all of the excitement in the air about creating great contextual experiences, there is a giant elephant in the room sitting in the back corner: privacy. Consumers and employees are concerned about all of the data we’re collecting about them on a device that has turned into the most personal piece of technology we use today. Fatemeh Khatibloo at Forrester Research had a great talk called Context: Rescuing Us From Privacy’s Dark Age. Khatibloo argued that context is the great filter for what data we collect on our users. Context enables control, choice, and respect by putting guardrails around data access, collection, data use, and data sharing. Although our app might have access to the data at any given time, we shouldn’t collect and store all of it. She argues only the data that should be collected is the information that helps us enable contextual experiences. A great example of this would be an app for an airport. Using spatial or geo-location data, it gives the app permission to collect information only when you are at the airport rather than collecting at random. This allows us to remove all of the noise from the data and also only collect what we need about our users.

Khatibloo also predicted that we’re going to see many more PR disasters around companies collecting too much information on their users, and then either misusing that data or possibly getting hacked. We’ve already seen the nightmare that the Target credit card hack caused earlier this year, and more are likely to come.

In addition to many of the breakouts around privacy were two keynotes by Edward Snowden and Julian Assange speaking about the role of government and privacy.

The Internet of Things and Sensors Data

Alongside the topics of context and privacy were discussions around the sensors outside of our mobile phones that are used to collect data and create unique experiences. The IoT ecosystem and the sensors around us are growing at an alarming rate, and many software developers are trying to understand how to best use the data in a way that benefits people outside of blasting them with push notifications or texts. Entrepreneurs creating these new devices are quickly realizing that nailing the user experience of these devices is key.


A common theme throughout all of SXSW about the IoT was that data without purpose is quantified noise. Alfred Lui, the Chief Design Officer at Seer Labs gave a talk about reorienting ux design for the internet of things. He spoke about how it is not enough just to collect data from these sensors, but also create meaning from the data. Once you have the meaning, you can tell engaging stories of insight from the past and foresight into the future. Lui also argued that we have to think beyond the actual sensor or product to service or ecosystem design. Lui defines service design as: “the activity of planning and organizing people, infrastructure, communication, and material components of a service in order to improve its quality and the interaction between service provider and customers.” Here at ChaiOne, we’re in violent agreement that behind every product is a service that the user has to interact with and the experience interacting with that service is as important as the design of the actual device or piece of software.

No big startup idea, no big deal

Even though there wasn’t any one particular earth shattering technology launch at SXSW, the era we’re entering of wearable technology and the IoT is much bigger than one particular product. The speed at which sensors are becoming omnipresent is alarming and the changes in privacy and how we contextually interact with technology will continue to get more complex in the coming years. Just like Robert Scoble’s book The Age of Context suggests, we are moving into a new era of computing that fundamentally changes the way we interact with technology which is an idea that is much bigger than just one startup.


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