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South by Southwest

SXSW canceled


Austin Mayor Steve Adler declared a local disaster Friday in response to the new coronavirus and issued an order canceling South by Southwest for the first time in its 34-year history. The 10-day event was scheduled to begin next Friday and expected hundreds of thousands of attendees to fly in from around the globe.

The decision was prompted by a recommendation from an expert advisory panel made up of 13 medical professionals. Major sponsors and companies had already pulled out of the event, including Facebook, Twitter, Netflix and Apple, and a petition to cancel the event had garnered over 50,000 signatures.

“We looked at the options for mitigation, we looked at other opportunities to decrease the threat to an acceptable level that would allow us to continue,” Dr. Mark Escott, Austin’s interim medical director and health authority, said at the press conference. “However, after careful deliberation, there was no acceptable path forward that would mitigate the risk enough to protect our community.”

There have been no known cases of the virus being spread through the community in Texas. By Friday afternoon, at least 17 people had tested positive for the virus, and all of them were exposed overseas. Eleven of those cases were among people who were repatriated and quarantined at the Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio. At least six more were people from the Houston area who had recently traveled to Egypt. Escott said there are no confirmed cases of the COVID-19 virus in Austin, though there are tests pending.

SXSW organizers are “devastated,” but they “honor and respect the City of Austin’s decision,” according to a statement released on Twitter.

You can see the SXSW statement here. South By and the city of Austin will be fine, this will eventually be rescheduled, and while the short term effect will be devastating, they will recover. But please spare a thought for the folks who work in the hospitality industry – hotels, restaurants, bus and cab and rideshare drivers, and so on – who will really take it on the chin and may not have the capacity to recover. Go eat out for a few nights in the next couple of weeks, whether you live in Austin or anywhere else. Let’s not find that when things have returned to normal, so many of these places had to go out of business in the meantime.

An SB4 threefer

We have our first SB4 casualty.

A 15,000-member association of attorneys and law professors said on Wednesday that it is relocating its 2018 convention out of Texas in response to the state legislature passing Senate bill 4, a sweeping and controversial immigration enforcement measure.

The American Immigration Lawyers Association was scheduled to hold its 3-day event in Grapevine next year, but said the bill’s “dangerous, destructive and counter productive proposals” go against the group’s mission. About 3,000 people were expected to attend the convention.

“One of the issues that drove the board’s decision was concern on behalf of quite a number of our members that they might not be willing to bring themselves or their families to Texas,” AILA president Bill Stock told reporters during a conference call. “Our members are US citizens and green card holders but many of them come from ethnic communities where they felt that they [would] being unfairly targeted.”


The AILA Grapevine conference was booked years ago. The organization could face financial penalties for relocating, Stock said, but the group chose to cancel the event anyway due to the new law.

I don’t think it should surprise anyone that an association of immigration attorneys would want to take its business elsewhere after SB4 passed. Will other groups do likewise? It’s hard to say, especially given the vastly greater attention given to SB6, which will be re-focused on the state during the special session. With all the lawsuits getting filed, and with SB4 not officially taking effect until September 1 barring an injunction, perhaps that will change.

In the meantime, SxSW has come under some pressure to think about relocating. For now, at least, they are standing firm.

[SXSW CEO Roland] Swenson’s position is reasonable—and it’s notable that he doesn’t make the argument that leaving Austin is unrealistic, which while true, would come off as a smidge hypocritical from an organization that’s floated such ideas themselves. As the 2017 regular session proved, and which Abbott’s comments at a reception in Belton about the smell of the air in “the People’s Republic of Austin” on Wednesday confirmed, bashing Austin is good for politics if you’re a Texas Republican. Leading SXSW to pull out of Austin might have a negative economic impact on the city to the tune of $320 million a year, but it’s a safe bet that any politician who voted for SB 4 would probably get cheers from their base for chasing it out of town.

All of which highlights the actual issue that SXSW—and any business whose values involve a fairly progressive worldview—face in operating in Texas in 2017. Austin leads the state in startups, venture capital, and patents. The sort of industries that are likely to form the basis of Texas’s modern economy are growing out of a city that the state’s leaders are quick to bash. At some point, Austin, SXSW, and all of the constituencies that those two entities represent are going to have to make some decisions about whether the animosity coming from the state to their interests is mutual—and if so, what to do about it.

See the Chron for more. It’s crazy to think that our Republican overlords, who like to tout every business relocation to Texas, would cheer for a $300 million economic loss, but this is the world we live in. Texas’ urban areas are big engines of growth, but their politics differ from those of the state leadership, which has been doing all it can to stick it to them.

All of that is bad for business, and business is wondering when it lost its influence.

Dennis Nixon is the CEO of the International Bank of Commerce, the ninth biggest bank in Texas, the kind of person the state’s Republicans used to listen to. These days, however, he’s feeling woefully neglected.

“I personally think it’s a disaster,” Nixon says, about the legislative session that just ended. “They basically disregarded the business community of Texas, just threw us under the bus.”

Nixon is particularly exasperated by the passage of Senate Bill 4, which directs local law enforcement agencies to cooperate with federal immigration officials in arresting and detaining undocumented immigrants. He says the immigrant workforce is essential to the state’s economic health, and that driving them out is self-sabotage.

He pointed to Arizona, where anti-immigration laws drove out workers, created labor shortages and hurt economic growth.

“This could have really serious consequences for Texas,” he says. “”My argument is, we have to have these people. They’re working already.”

It’s not just the immigration issue: Nixon is also fuming at the Texas legislature’s focus on social issues like abortion and transgender bathroom access, its failure to address high property taxes, and the Trump administration’s determination to build a wall on the border with Mexico. He says he’s brought these issues up with lawmakers, to no avail.

“I don’t get it,” Nixon says. “I’m just one guy in the night, screaming.”


“No amount of misinformation and fear-mongering about a law that keeps dangerous criminals off the street, and that a majority of Texans support, will stop business from thriving in Texas,” said Abbott spokesman John Wittman, of the sanctuary cities bill. He also expressed confidence that the bathroom bill wouldn’t hurt the state’s economy.

“The truth is that businesses look at what is best for their bottom line, and Texas is that place,” Wittman says.

Nixon disagrees, and worries that Texas’ open-for-business reputation isn’t indestructible.

“That’s a very slippery slope to get on, when the government disregards the business message, you’re really getting yourself into trouble,” Nixon says. “Especially if you’re a Republican state, you want to retain the business community as a political ally.”

Still, businesses are in a little bit of a box: Democrats aren’t exactly their cup of tea either, with their preference for higher taxes and tighter regulations.

“They’ve moved to the left, and gotten so crazy out of whack,” Nixon says. “And we’ve got the Republicans who’ve moved far to the right, they’ve gotten crazy out of whack. So we’ve got to get back to the middle here.”

Sorry, dude, but you’re going to have to make a choice. You could try to elect some less-fanatical Republicans via the primaries, but good luck with that. Alternately, you can accept that while Democrats can, will, and should oppose you on some important things, they at least won’t work to destroy the state’s economy and reputation through legislative means. Last we checked, businesses were doing pretty well in Democratic-run states like California, too. What do you have to lose here?

Our corporate allies

Whatever else you may think, they represent our best chance to beat back anti-LGBT legislation this session.

With more than 20 anti-LGBT bills pending in the Texas Legislature, a coalition of major employers in the state — including Dell, Samsung and Southwest Airlines — is making the business case for fair treatment of gay, bisexual and transgender people.

More than 50 businesses have joined the coalition, called Texas Competes, by signing a pledge saying LGBT inclusion is essential to maintaining the Texas brand, attracting top talent and new companies to the state, and supporting a healthy tourism industry.

The full list of businesses, which includes 13 from the Fortune 500, will be unveiled Tuesday at a press conference in Austin featuring representatives from the Texas Association of Business, South By Southwest and the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce.

Texas Competes spokesman James Shackelford said the coalition won’t take positions on specific legislation and that the effort has been in the works for months, long before anti-LGBT religious freedom laws in Indiana and Arkansas sparked historic backlash from the corporate sector.

“But obviously the timing, when it’s launching and when we’re going public with it, is important,” Shackelford told the Observer.

As Texas Competes says in its About page, they’re not a grassroots or lobbying organization, and they won’t endorse specific bills. They’re here to make a straight-up economic case for embracing equality. Maybe that’s not your preferred line of reasoning, but if it keeps a few legislators from voting Yes on some of those hateful bills, it’s all for the good. As I said before regarding the Texas Association of Business, which is lobbying against bad anti-LGBT bills, we can take advantage of this alignment while still keeping our eyes on the ball. We’d be crazy not to gather all the allies we can get for this.

AirBnB in Houston

When people talk about “the sharing economy” for good or ill, the main players that get named tend to be Uber, Lyft, and AirBnB. We’ve heard a lot about the first two in Houston lately, but prior to this Chron story I can’t say I’d heard anything about the latter.

Airbnb launched in 2009 as a way for those with extra space to connect with travelers looking for an alternative to traditional hotels, in the same way that Uber and Lyft help people turn their cars into temporary taxis. In November 2013 Airbnb chief technology officer Nate Blecharczyk reported that more than 9 million users, or “guests,” have now stayed in AirBnb rentals, up exponentially from the 4 million bookings that the start-up recorded in its first four years of business.

“I had a roommate, and when she moved out instead of going through the whole process of finding a new roommate, I had extra furniture so I thought I would give it a shot,” said Crystal Lee, who has been renting a room in her Montrose house on Airbnb since 2012.

“Everything is yours, so I think people are a lot more respectful of that,” she said. “With roommates, people get used to leaving their stuff everywhere and not caring. When you have a house guest, people tend to be polite. It’s kind of fun to play tour guide and tell people where to go and what to do.”


Airbnb is most popular in cities that attract a lot of tourism and where hotel prices and rents are high. Austin, with less than half of the population of Houston, boasts nine times the number of Airbnb properties that Houston lists. That’s partly because downtown Austin has only 6,000 hotel rooms, not nearly enough for major events like Austin City Limits and South by Southwest. The fact that Airbnb has made a major push for publicity at recent SXSW festivals – including a promotional park featuring live music and display rooms designed by musicians like Snoop Dogg – could also be a factor.

Houston, on the other hand, has nearly 75,000 hotel rooms in the metropolitan area. According to tourism data compiled by the Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau, a higher than average percentage of visitors are here visiting family or on a business trip, implying that they already have a place to stay or that hotel price is not of primary concern.

Houston is also one of only two cities in the U.S. where the average hotel rate per night is lower than renting out an entire house or apartment on Airbnb, according to the website Priceonomics. (The other city is Las Vegas.)

Cheap, plentiful hotel rooms haven’t made a dent in the demand for Airbnb hosts though. Anderson says her property is booked about 75 percent of the time, and Wright, who only makes her house available on weekends when she is heading to family homes in Tiki Island or La Grange, says she turns down more offers than she accepts. The process has been so successful for Lee that when her job relocated her to New York earlier this year, she kept her Houston house and still rents out the extra room.

While Houston might be lacking in traditional tourists, many Airbnb guests are people who are planning to move to the city and want to get a feel for the different neighborhoods. Others, particularly international travelers, stop in Houston while on cross-country trips as a break between the frenetic nightlife of New Orleans and Austin. Internships, job interviews, weddings and family visits are also commonly cited reasons for a Houston Airbnb stay.

It’s an interesting contrast with Austin. I know several people who have made an envy-inducing amount of money renting their homes via AirBnB for South by Southwest. I suppose the difference between “normal” level of demand for hotel space in Austin and the peak level that happens when SxSW is happening is such that AirBnB makes a lot of sense to fill the gap. I seem to recall there being a few stories about people leasing their homes for outrageous amounts in Houston during the last Super Bowl for similar reasons. I get why people have concerns about the effect of companies like Uber and Lyft on employment opportunities in the industry they’re entering. I think those concerns are valid even as I support allowing Uber and Lyft into currently regulated vehicle for hire markets. I don’t see the same concerns about AirBnB, however. There’s no barrier to entry in the hotel market like there has been in many cities in the taxi market, and there’s no general complaint about the way the hotel business is run like there is for taxis. A ride is a ride, but there’s a vast difference between a Motel Six room and one at the Ritz Carlton, or a traditional bed and breakfast and a resort hotel like the Hyatt Lost Pines. Uber and Lyft could conceivably upend the existing taxi industry, but I don’t see AirBnB as being anything more than a niche. What do you think?

The Uber/Lyft debate comes to Austin

Get ready, y’all.

The discussion around Austin’s public transportation debate has been at times both fevered and nuanced, driven in large part by social media. There have been discussions about lightrail, late-night bus service, parking ticket waivers, taxi driver accountability and, of course, drinking and driving. But during this call to action, no one name has popped up more than Uber, the black car ridesharing service started and headquartered in San Francisco.

For those who haven’t used the service — which is currently available in 35 countries and dozens of cities across the U.S. including New York, Los Angeles, Dallas and Houston — Uber is a smartphone-based app that allows users to tap a button, type in a destination and order a chauffeured black car directly to their front door. On Thursday, May 15, the Austin City Council will vote to approve a resolution asking City Manager Marc Ott to develop a recommendation for personal, non-commercial vehicles services like these.

In a 2013 memo to Mayor Lee Leffingwell, Ott and the City Council, then-director of the Austin Transportation Department Robert Spillar wrote that rideshares like Uber must be regulated through a taxi franchise or operating authority, thus ending the chances of the company operating within city limits.

Staff believes that these two services (car/vanpool or licensed vehicles-for-hire) represent the full spectrum of ridesharing activities possible and that smart phone enabled rideshare (SPER) applications either facilitate legitimate car/vanpool activities where compensation is on the basis of trip cost (now legal under City Code); or they are serving as dispatch for a vehicle-for-hire activity, that if not licensed through a taxi franchise or operating authority, is illegal.

Currently, rideshares like Uber, Sidecar and Lyft, among others, are unable to provide service in Austin, due in part to complex regulations and a city code that covers only car/vanpools and regulated taxi and chauffeured rides. Rideshare companies fall somewhere in the middle; unlike a traditional taxi or limo company, many rideshares simply provide the connection between the driver and the passenger, not the actual service itself.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Uber has a petition that has attracted a lot of support. You have to admit, if there’s a city in Texas that would seem like a natural fit for these services, it’s Austin. More here:

“This is an important, pressing issue. We have people on the streets of downtown Austin who need options,” said Chris Riley, Austin City Council member.

Council Member Chris Riley is sponsoring an item on this week’s agenda to look at adding Transportation Network Companies into the mix.


The Council will vote on the resolution Thursday. If it passes the city manager will have 90 days to come up with a report and pilot program for TNCs.

KXAN has a summary of the resolutions.

Councilman Chris Riley has proposed three resolutions.

1. The first look at creating a pilot program for transportation networking companies to operate during peak times, subject to licensure and safety requirements for drivers and cars. Council members will also look at regulations in place in other cities, including Chicago and Seattle.

2. Another resolution aims to find short-term and long-term solutions to better meet taxi demands.

3. The third resolution asks staff to put late-night transportation options on the city website, and several options are already available on the site.

See here for the full text of the resolutions. It should be noted that Austin has had some prior experience with Uber, during this year’s South By Southwest festival. It was predictably tumultuous.

South By Southwest brings a lot of things to Austin: film premieres, start-ups, newsmakers, bands, traffic and tech savvy out-of-towners.

It’s that last group that might take umbrage with the city’s ride-sharing policy, which outlaws apps like Uber, Lyft, SideCar and since-shuttered Austin-based Hey Ride.

The city contends these services have unregulated – and potentially unsafe – drivers.

Austin plans to enforce city code by impounding drivers’ vehicles and ticketing them up to $1,500 if they’re busted. Uber, which has provided rides to fest-goers despite the City of Austin’s warnings, says their model is the future of traditional taxi services.

This year at SXSW, Uber offered their Uber Black service. It charges a $55 minimum fare and requires a minimum 30-minute wait time between a call or service request via its app, and pick up time.

It’s expensive, but it’s legal. Uber joined with limousine services, allowing them to use their software at a fee as long as they provide the rides.

But Uber’s lower-cost service – Uber X, which uses contracted drivers operating their own cars – isn’t legal, according to the city charter. The Austin Transportation Department’s Gordon Derr says Uber X drivers don’t have the oversight year-round drivers do, and that’s a safety concern.

“The primary thing is that if somebody is being paid to drive somebody around, then that’s a vehicle for hire,” Derr says. “And it’s subject to regulation.”


Uber contends their drivers are just as qualified. And for now, they aren’t charging customers – which, they say, is allowable under the city ordinance as a purely promotional service.

See here, here, and here for more on that. I’m sure you’re as shocked as I am by Uber’s casual approach to the law. The middle of those three links above notes that Uber imported drivers from other cities for SxSW, many of whom not too surprisingly weren’t all that familiar with Austin. As with the possibility of getting a citation for using the service in the first place, you’d think that would not be the best way to make a good first impression. Be that as it may, I figure Austin City Council will approve CM Riley’s resolutions, and we’ll see how it goes from there.

Finally, in news that I thought was of interest but didn’t want to devote a separate post to, a mini-link roundup on Uber and Lyft:

They get a warm reception in Washington, DC, where it would seem the local cab companies aren’t held in high esteem. Where’s Mr. T when you really need him?

Some hotshot venture capitalist thinks companies like AirBnB, Uber, and Lyft are setting themselves up for future problems by having raised so many zillions of venture capital. The next wave of transportation innovators will surely be less in the thrall of their financial overlords, and thus better able to return value to all the stakeholders, which includes their customers.

And finally, if you’re going to Cannes this year, Uber has a deal for you.

Friday random ten: South By Southwest

You may have heard something about South By Southwest, the big music/arts/techie shindig they have in Austin every year. I’ve never been and honestly probably never will, but I have grabbed some of the free tunes they make available after everyone leaves town. This year the sampler I got is called Austin Power – Best SxSW Acts 2012, from SPIN Magazine, and I figured it would be a good basis for a Friday Random Ten list. Here are ten of the songs from that download.

1. TRACKS (TALL BODIES) – Chelsea Wolfe
2. We Got It Wrong – St. Lucia
3. Weekend – Class Actress
4. Wild Desire – King Tuff
5. Wine – Blondes
6. The Dream – Thee Oh Sees
7. No Future No Past – Cloud Nothings
8. Scarlet – 2:54
9. Searching Through The Past – Bleached
10. Seekir – Zola Jesus

I haven’t listened to all of it yet – there’s more than 40 songs in the collection, and I only downloaded it on Wednesday. “Wild Desire” is probably my favorite so far. Overall I’d say I’ve liked these songs more than I expected to. I have reasonably broad tastes in music, but I’m undoubtedly more conventional than your average SxWSer. Nothing I’d give four stars to yet, but not bad at all for free music from a bunch of acts I’d never heard of. Worth your time to download and give it a listen while you can.

Homeless Hotspots

You’ve probably heard about this by now.

If you’re looking for WiFi at the South by Southwest tech conference this week, instead of heading to a cafe or bumming off of a neighbor, you might just ask a homeless person.

That’s right. New York-based advertising agency BBH Labs introduced a trial run of its new project, called “Homeless Hotspots,” at the tech startup conference in Austin, which started Friday. While potentially practical, the pilot program isn’t exactly getting rave reviews from everyone.

Wired magazine reports that the homeless individuals hawking the service were recruited from a local shelter and are walking around carrying MiFi devices (techspeak for mobile WiFi hotpots) and wearing t-shirts with this:


Those who wish to connect to the 4G network offer a donation that goes directly to the homeless person. BBH Labs recommends a $2 donation per 15 minutes of use—which can be paid through PayPal—but leaves the ultimate payment up to each Internet user.

Okay, I can see what they’re going for here. Jeff Balke raises some objections.

On one hand, I really admire the effort. This company is finding a way to help struggling people by filling a need for those clearly not struggling. Let’s be honest, if your biggest problem is a poor wi-fi signal for your phone on the streets of Austin, you’re doing better than about 80 percent of the world’s population.

I suppose it gives people an excuse to give money to someone on the street who needs it more than that person giving it does and it provides a service in return. In a way, it turns homeless men and women into street vendors. It doesn’t pay much but it is work.

Still, I just can’t get behind the notion that people on the street should walk up to a homeless guy wearing a “HOMELESS HOTSPOT” billboard and ask for access to his network. If they were paying college kids to stand out on the streets, fine. But, homeless people?

It also underscores the tremendous divide in our country and not the digital one. We’re talking about people with every opportunity and every advantage paying a poor person a couple bucks to use technology a company has strapped to his back the homeless man could never come close to affording. For a couple bucks, some guy gets to keep from bumping up against his cell phone’s bandwidth limit while the guy he paid for the service is living in a shelter. Weird.

Then there’s the term: homeless hotspot. First off, the hotspot isn’t homeless, the person carrying the technology is. It’s the equivalent of calling a disabled person selling cookies “crippled cookies.” That alliteration isn’t clever. It’s stupid. Also, he’s not a hotspot, he’s a person carrying a hotspot. That ridiculous name doesn’t do anything but dehumanize this person who likely gets that kind of treatment virtually every day.

That’s all very compelling, but here’s Matt Yglesias with a different perspective.

Now the general idea of PR stunts is to generate positive publicity, which this massively failed to do. However, the negative reaction to this sort of thing always drives the more literal-minded of us slightly crazy. Think about all the companies involved in one way or another in SXSW who did absolutely nothing at all for Austin’s homeless population. How much condemnation did they get? None. BBH’s stunt here offends our sense of human dignity, but the real offense is that people were languishing in such poor conditions that they would find this to be an attractive job offer. The sin they’re being punished for is less any harm they’ve done to homeless people than the way they broke decorum by shoving the reality of human misery amid material plenty into the faces of convention-goers. The polite thing to do is to let suffering take place offstage and unremarked-upon.

Speaking as someone with a Catholic sense of guilt, all I can say is “ouch”. Jason Cohen at Texas Monthly provides the best overview, and some support for the Yglesias position:

Now that the program’s over, the Austin homeless services organization Front Steps, which connected BBH with its clients, has pronounced it a success.

“We are all so grateful we had this opportunity,” says Front Steps director of development and communications Mitchell Gibbs. “Overall our community is hearing a whole lot more about homelessness then maybe (it) would have otherwise, and we’re having the conversation on a national scale that we didn’t anticipate being fortunate enough to have a few days ago.”


[As] KXAN, NBC’s affiliate in Austin, reported, homeless people are also out during SXSW selling Blue Bell Ice Cream, a program run by Mobile Loaves and Fishes. Each treat is $1, and the vendors keep all proceeds (Blue Bell also donated the ice cream). It’s just a lot easier to be cynical about Internet marketing than ice cream.

Of course, the “Street Treats” vendors don’t have to wear a t-shirt that says “I am an ice cream sandwich.” As Erin Kissane tweeted, “the difference between ‘I’m running a hotspot’ and ‘I am a hotspot’ is a difference that matters.”

But the truth is that without the brazen—and potent, given that at SXSW, the whole world lives online, and the homeless want to get back in the world—metaphor, it’s not as good a marketing campaign.

What do you think? Buzzfeed and BOR have more.

UPDATE: Jon Stewart weighs in.

No voter ID today

The Senate was supposed to finish doing its dirty work on voter ID today, but a clerical error has put things off for another day. Including all previously scheduled committee meetings, because nothing else can get done till the single most important issue facing Texas today is disposed of. Well, if nothing else that helped keep my Twitter traffic to a manageable level today, no small thing with all the SxSW tweeting going on. Tune in tomorrow, yadda yadda yadda. BOR and EoW have some related reading to tide you over till then.