President Obama Calls on Technologists at SXSW to Help America Solve Problems

Wants to 'harness the next big thing'

President Barack Obama appeared at South by Southwest Interactive Friday with hopes of inspiring young technologist to start coding for a better America. 

"We are at a moment in history where technology, globalization, our economy is changing so fast, and this gathering at SXSW brings together people who are on the cutting edge of those changes," Obama said. "The reason why I'm here, really, is to recruit all of you. It's to say to you as I'm about to leave office, 'How can we start talking about new platforms, new ideas, new approaches across skill sets to solve some of the big problems that we're facing today?'"

The president later added, "If we use technology, data, social media in order to join forces around problems, then there is no problem we face in this country that is not soluble. … The focus isn't just the next big thing. How do we harness the next big thing so every person in this country has opportunity?"

During an hour-long panel with The Texas Tribune's CEO and editor in chief, Evan Smith, Obama also talked about the tech-based work going on at the White House, including speeding up the student-aid application process by using online forms, something he also wants to extend to voting.

"We're the only advanced democracy in the world that makes it hard for people to vote—it's sad," the president said. "It is much easier to order pizza or a trip than it is for you to exercise your single most important task in democracy, and that is for you to select who is going to represent you in government."

Obama also discussed how technology has failed under his leadership, particularly with the Affordable Care Act.

"I passed this law called the Affordable Care Act, and then the website didn't work," he said. "It was a little embarrassing for me because … my entire campaign had been premised on having really cool technology and social media."

By 2018, the president also said, he wants to see high-speed Internet in 98 percent of American classrooms.

"These are solvable problems, but it's not a matter of us passively waiting for someone else to solve it, and that's part of the mindset I'm trying to break," he said.

Encouraging technologists to get involved in government was only part of the discussion. Smith also asked Obama to weigh in on the thorny issues central to the ongoing fight between Apple and the FBI. The president declined to comment directly on the case but managed to acknowledge points from both sides of the ongoing debate while attempting to strike a balance.