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Most Innovative Meetings 2016: #6 South by Southwest

The massive multiday, multi-industry event is demonstrating how data can be used to help attendees determine where and how to spend their time.

By Mitra Sorrells October 17, 2016, 6:30 AM EDT

President Obama discussed civic engagement at a special event during SXSW with audience members selected in a random drawing.

Photo: Neilson Barnard/Getty Images for SXSW

In the 30 years since its inception, South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, has become known as a place to see the newest products and hear about cutting-edge strategies from the worlds of music, film, and interactive technology. Behind the scenes, organizers are also breaking new ground in the way they use data to help attendees navigate the 6,000 events that take place in 600 locations during the 10-day experience.

“We think of SXSW as a bit of a choose-your-own-adventure,” said Scott Wilcox, its director of technology. “You’ve got tens of thousands of badge holders all navigating through the city going to different things. And if we are able to leverage the best in mobile technology and data to create an experience that is a little more suggested or guided, then that’s something that can really enhance people’s experience.”

Working with the conference’s mobile app provider, Eventbase, Wilcox and his team developed SXSW Recommends, a feature in the app that suggests specific sessions for guests to attend. The recommendations are generated through an algorithm that analyzes a person’s profile—such as their industry and interests as well as which sessions they have favorited—as well as location and behavior based on real-time data from GPS tracking and 800 beacons around the venue. Throughout the 2016 event in March, the app sent 167,000 recommendations, some in advance and others as push notifications when the system detected gaps in an attendee’s schedule.

“When we were able to create that hyper real-time experience for people and suggest something nearby, people really liked that,” Wilcox said. “The main lesson is that people want more of that. They want more intelligence generally built into their experience. The way I think of it is the best in mobile tech does a whole lot of work for you while the phone is in your pocket, as opposed to having to do all the work and hunt through the schedule and everything yourself.”

For next year, Wilcox said the conference will incorporate more data sources into the attendee profiles so the service can provide more personalized and meaningful recommendations.

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