SXSW Eco: A Technical Communicator’s Experience

Editor’s Note:  TechWhirl contributor and super conference goer Lois Patterson made a stop in Austin for SXSW Eco, one of the newest SXSW events back in October.  Sustainability, eco-technology and corporate responsibility may not be the typical connections we make with technical communication, but Lois’ experience shows that tech comm has a place in this growing area dedicated to helping society and the planet.

sxsw-ecoLike some other lucky people, I won free passes to SXSW Eco, a conference “committed to finding solutions for a sustainable world,” which was held October 3-5 this year. SXSW Eco is in its second year, and is run by the same corporation that puts on the more well-known and established SXSW Interactive, Film, and Music events in March in Austin, Texas.

I am not an ecologist, city planner, or environmental engineer. Would I be able to get anything from a conference that was quite far from my typical work life? As it turned out, most definitely. I was under no pressure to learn something useful, but I had a wonderful time learning about topics that were mostly new to me, and interacting with attendees and speakers who were indeed expert in their fields.

Surprise, surprise – communication is of vital importance to developing sustainable solutions. I started my first day at SXSW Eco with the “Big Data: Changing the Energy Efficiency Game” session. It was about energy usage and usage visualization, but I discovered that content strategy, taxonomy, and gamification were all extremely relevant. The data collected by smartmeters has to be organized and made available to be of any use to users. It turns out that when people have very specific data about their energy usage, they can make better decisions, and they are also competitive when it comes to reducing their energy usage.

My second session, “The Science Communicators”, had an obvious technical communication link. But both my friend and I found that the panellists were not particularly effective in this setting. In a session of less than an hour, dividing up the time between the five panelists and questioners made for a scattered experience. All of the scientists attending were convinced of the significance of climate change, and impelled to communicate this. One bonus panelist, Michael E. Mann, was heavily involved in the “hockey stick controversy”, and he clearly felt he had been unfairly treated. My take on this was that the reader must always be able to access the data herself in order to ensure that the interpretation is accurate. Journalists and readers who sense any effort to manipulate data will come to distrust everything, even if the communicator had the best intentions. How does this relate to documenting software applications? We must eschew any temptation to include marketing-ese in our explanations, and not try to avoid bugs or clumsy user interfaces.

SXSW Eco gave me the chance to learn more about numerous topics including biomimicry, gamification, corporate disclosure requirements of non-financial data, water policy, food blogging, and beyond. In some sessions, having multiple panelists worked well, as they created synergy where information and ideas were better elucidated and brought forward, whereas in other cases, having several experts on a panel produced some cacophony.

The SXSW Eco conference was well-run and well-paced. My main problem was that I could not be two or more places at once, as there was always something interesting to see and do. I did not participate in any of the activities like tree-planting or watershed cleanup–more’s the pity. Of course, Austin is a charming city, with a multitude of things to do that go well beyond its justly-renowned live-music scene. If I can, I plan to attend again. Knowledge is never wasted!


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