SXSW provides insight into OKC’s place in the tech world

Skittles-at-SXSW

South By Southwest’s interactive festival brought together thousands of people from across the global technology industry. (Ben Felder)

Inside the massive exhibition hall at the South by Southwest (SXSW) interactive festival in Austin, cities and countries from around the world promote their local tech scenes, hoping to attract creative talent and raise their global profiles.

Among the booths for Germany and Austin, the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce was present with its booth, Meet Oklahoma.

“We are trying to show people that we have things to offer in all these different segments of film and music, but also technology,” said Josh O’Brien, director of entrepreneurial development for the chamber.

In its effort to promote the city and state as a destination for entrepreneurs and young creatives, groups like the chamber deal with competing narratives. Economic growth and a modern skyline look good on a chamber pamphlet, while national news reports on racist chants by fraternity members and legislative attacks on the LGBT community can stunt progress.

“We have Kevin Durant and the Thunder,” said Steven Newlon, president of OKC-based SYN3RGY Creative Group. “But we also have to deal with those stereotypes you hear about. We do have a perception battle.”

Nowhere is the perception battle highlighted more than at SXSW, where startups, cities and companies all compete with each other to become the most cutting-edge in a world that continues to see some of its biggest economic growth in the new tech scene.

However, while OKC can feel like an underdog compared to cities like Austin and San Francisco both in progressive culture and tech infrastructure, Newlon said his hometown offers some advantages for a technology and marketing firm like his.

“I think Oklahoma City has an advantage in that the cost of living is pretty low, so our costs are low,” Newlon said. “We also have a very entrepreneurial spirit; we can get really creative here.”

Newlon also said he believes being from middle America gives his company a better look at the average consumer most companies are trying to reach.

“I find that a lot of Oklahomans typically travel more than people from big cities because people from big cities kind of live in a bubble,” Newlon said. “So they haven’t been to Oklahoma City or other places in the middle of the country. We know those other markets and our market better than they do.”

There is something to be said about doing business outside the bubbles of the East and West coasts, said Craig Elbert, director of finance at Bonobos, an Iowa-based online men’s fashion company.

“By being in middle America, we can make sure our day-to-day conversation and interactions don’t get too insular, like it might in the fashion hub of New York City,” Elbert said during a panel on technology in the Midwest at SXSW.

 

BAllot-App

Created by students at the University of Michigan, the Ballot mobile app connects users with political information. (Ben Felder)

App growth

If SXSW is any indication, it’s a mobile app world and we are just living in it.

“I was joking that you could walk up to anybody [at SXSW] and say, ‘I love your app,’ and they will say, ‘Thank you,’ and you don’t even have to know them,” said Sarah Kessler, an editor at Fast Company magazine.

The statistics back that up as more people access the Internet on a mobile device than from a computer.

“We’re now past the mobile tipping point as this report from comScore shows,” wrote Danyl Bosomworth in an article about a comScore report that showed app usage overtaking computers in early 2014.

The interactive trade show at SXSW last week was filled with mobile app creators, including a group of students from the University of Michigan who want to connect users with relevant political information.

“What we find is that most people don’t care about politics; they just care about one or two issues that affect them on a daily basis,” said Ritwik Biswas, Ballot app co-creator. “Instead of just getting you all bills that you don’t care about, we use tags from the user to give them info on legislation that they are interested in.”

Not only does the Ballot app curate stories, but it allows the user to comment directly to their legislator.

“Whatever you do, your opinion will be voiced to your representative, like in an email,” Biswas said.

Farm-Tech

Adam Smith right with Kakaxi talks with visitors at his SXSW booth about a device that gathers information from crops. (Ben Felder)

Earthy tech

SXSW also featured startups looking to bring tech to the farm. Kakaxi had a booth in Austin in the hopes of producing a device that relays important data from crops to a farmer and gives consumers a closer look that the origins of their food.

“[This device has] sensors on the inside that measure temperature, humidity, day length, soil contents and other vitals [of a crop],” said Adam Smith, director of partnership at Kakaxi.

The device also has a time-lapse camera that can record crop growth.

“This is centered around showing the story from the farm to the table,” Smith added. “Oftentimes, when someone goes to the farmer’s market or the grocery store and grabs some food, there is a huge element of that food’s life cycle that is missing. We want to ultimately connect with consumers with their local farms and CSA programs.”

 

Print headline: Apps galore, OKC looks to raise its profile at the SXSW tech scene.

Ben Felder

Ben is an urban affairs reporter covering local government and education in Oklahoma City. He lives in OKC with his wife, Lori, and son, Satchel. Ben holds a masters in new media journalism from Full Sail University and is an OKC transplant from Kansas City, Mo. Twitter: @benfelder_okg

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