Lisa Harris is director of Communications: Web and New Media for the Colorado Health Foundation.
Each March, wired throngs descend on Austin, Texas, for the motherload of all digital conferences: SXSW Interactive.
Health was a predominant theme at this year's conference. Between attending 50+ sessions, the Foundation's Web and New Media team was on the ground sponsoring the Foundation Interactive Group (FIG) meetup and the Beacon Nonprofit Lounge with a Conscience.
Here are my top takeaways:
Can health be cool?
Coolness is considered the "Holy Grail" in the fight against childhood obesity. It's the intangible quality that eludes most health campaigns – especially when coupled with a targeted marketing blitz of unhealthy choices. SXSW put health's cool kids on stage with Feel Rich, a new organization with the tagline, "Health is the New Wealth."
With an entourage of rappers, trainers and some of the most engaging speakers I've seen in ages, Feel Rich brings health and wellness to urban youth and communities. Want to hear how hip hop icon Fat Joe lost 100 lbs? Feel Rich will tell you and they hold a large social media presence via Facebook and Twitter. Where else would kids tweet, "Hey @FeelRich. I'm at McDonalds. What should I get?" Impressively, Feel Rich pairs their online strategy with on-the-ground action. During SXSW, more than 400 kids from the Austin Boys and Girls Club showed up for a Feel Rich Zumba class. Now that's bringing the cool to health. The presentation is now available online.
Visionary health through technology
Use of technology has exponentially increased during the past 100 years. What will technology's growth arc mean for health?
Named "the ultimate thinking machine" by Forbes, futurist and SXSW keynote Ray Kurzweil is health and medicine's ultimate optimist. Viewed through a technology lens, Kurzweil sees health problems as "software" problems. Too geeky for you? Think about it. Our bodies are programmed for hunter/gatherer lifestyles not sitting behind desks all day. Kurzweil says we need an upgrade and health is on the brink of exponential progress through technology advancements.
Want the lung capacity of an Olympic athlete? It's coming. Computers embedded in our brains and bodies? Already here with some Parkinson's patients. U.S. life expectancy was 48 yrs. in 1900, it's 78 today. Envision the radical leaps ahead.
Digital divide and the democratization of technology
With 6 billion mobile phones and 1 billion smartphones on the planet, Kurzweil sees democratization in technology. Africans are leapfrogging desktops and laptops to embrace mobile. Just imagine the potential human creativity unleashed if technology access was easily in everyone's hands. Before we get swept up in technology's glowing optimism, what about the digital divide? As Kurzweil has an optimistic outlook on access issues with mobile adoption, let's flip the coin on U.S. connectivity issues.
In a session devoted to the digital divide, we learned that high speed connectivity remains a problem in rural America. Dee Davis, president of the Center for Rural Strategies, says that rural connectivity issues may even impact health reform implementation as the Affordable Care Act (ACA) is based on suburban/urban connectivity assumptions. Davis stressed the importance of a connected citizenry where everyone's voice is needed and connectivity is still a concern. Here again, SXSW has posted the presentation online.
A Better Tomorrow highlights
SXSW features a "Better Tomorrow" track highlighting digital efforts for the greater good. As many of you know, the Foundation is all about storytelling these days with our Colorado Kaleidoscope: Stories of a State's Health project. Storytelling was a hot topic at this year's conference and my favorite storytelling session featured lots of resources for video and photographic projects. Resources include PhotoPhilanthropy an organization connecting nonprofits with photographers and Austin-based Lights, Camera, Help sponsoring the world's first film festival for the films-for-a-cause genre.
Until next year...