Homeless Hotspots at South by Southwest Spark Controversy

A strange, but true project called Homeless Hotspots has stirred up controversy over a plan by BBH Labs to turn the homeless in Austin, Texas into mobile wireless hotspots. The Homeless Hotspots project provides pay-for-Internet high speed wireless access for those in need, such as visitors to Austin’s legendary music festival, South by Southwest.

As part of the Homeless Hotspots program, a group of homeless Austin, Texas citizens were given Verizon mobile MiFi 4G devices and t-shirts declaring their names and the statement: “I am a 4G hotspot.” Then they were strategically placed outside of the SXSW music and technology conference. On the T-shirt of participant Melvin Hughes, the shirt reads: “SMS HH Melvin to 25827 for access.”

Those wanting access to Hughes’ homeless hotspot text the code to the number, which then texts back a network password. The access costs $2 per 15 minutes as a suggested donation. All the proceeds reportedly will go directly to the homeless person whose access was used. At SXSW, visitors could pay the homeless person in cash for the access if they choose, and they could simply keep the cash.

“Homeless Hotspots is a charitable innovation initiative – it attempts to modernize the Street Newspaper model employed to support homeless populations,” says BBH Labs, which came up with the idea.

“We’re believers that providing a digital service will earn these individuals more money than a print commodity,” Saneel Radia, BBH NY’s director of innovation, wrote in a blog post at BBH-Labs.com. “We’re using SXSW as our beta test. Hopefully you can help us optimize and validate this platform, which we hope to see adopted on a broader scale.”

Even though the Homeless Hotspots plan benefits the homeless in volved, some are outraged over the use of the homeless in Austin as commodities for sale.

British brand strategist Luke Scheybeler calls the Homeless Hotspots project a ‘shameful, hideous, patronising, demunising idea,’ according to The Daily Mail.

“It is a neat idea on a practical level, but also a little dystopian,” wrote David Gallagher of the New York Times. “When the infrastructure fails us … we turn human beings into infrastructure?”

“This is my worry,” Tim Carmody of Wired wrote, “the homeless turned not just into walking, talking hotspots, but walking, talking billboards for a program that doesn’t care anything at all about them or their future, so long as it can score a point or two about digital disruption of old media paradigms.”

As for the homeless participating in the program, they mostly seem to be rather pleased with the opportunity. “They’re giving us the opportunity to work,” participant Mark West said, according to CNN.com. “You’re proving a service for the public. It’s like an individual business.”

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Annaka Turner

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