Homeless Hotspots at SXSW Cause Uproar


Two words — “Homeless Hotspots” — are causing an uproar in Austin, Texas. Billed as “a charitable experiment” by BBH, it’s not part of the official South by Southwest Interactive agenda, but it’s getting mixed reviews and lots of attention.

Bartle Bogle Hegarty’s BBHLabs skunkworks unit partnered with Front Steps Shelter to equip homeless people with 4G MiFi devices to serve as walking hotspots or pay-per-use Wi-Fi purveyors for attendees at the SXSW Interactive conference now taking place in Austin, TX.

The experiment was to see how much SXSWi attendees would donate (suggested donation: $2 per 15 minutes) — assuming attendees didn’t oppose the notion of fundraising via hotspots (vs., say, hot meals) for the homeless.[more]

The homeless participants offering Wi-Fi to can be spotted by their T-shirts (today’s the last day), which read:






They’re carrying MiFi devices to enable 4G network log-on, via phone or tablet, with donations gathered going directly to the person who sold the access. But don’t they deserve more than $2 per 15 minutes — and what about sharing the tech expertise, a la SXSWi’s digital DNA, so “teach a man to fish (and feed him for a lifetime)”?

“We’re believers that providing a digital service will earn these individuals more money than a print commodity,” comments BBH Labs’ Saneel Radia to Wired‘s Tim Carmody about creating an updated version of the homeless newspaper giveaways of yore.

“My worry,” writes Carmody — “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.”

“Where the men involved aren’t even able to tell their own stories to the world, before they’re doubly used: first by the SXSWi attendees with their smartphones, and then by the marketing firm who will sell their story as a case study or TV show pitch (that bit’s a false rumor, BBH tweeted), or to a company looking for a new advertising opportunity at next year’s SXSWi. Where people really are turned into platforms to be “optimized” and “validated.” I don’t believe BBH Labs’ history with the homeless provides any reason to expect anything better.”

The organizers had a simple goal — reinvent the homeless newspaper for the digital age — and drew on its previous campaigns such as The Guardian’s much-lauded “Three Little Pigs” campaign about open journalism. The homeless hotspots idea for SXSW was specifically inspired by the BBH interns who spearheaded the homeless/social media experiment that was Underheard last summer in New York (tagline: “Fighting homelessness 140 characters at a time).

For the SXSW hotspots project, a group of homeless people were given mobile phones, Twitter accounts and unlimited texting to share their lives and tell their stories. The public could follow along via the main Twitter feed too.

Following the outcry that ensued on Twitter, BBH Labs released this statement today:

Obviously, there’s an insane amount of chatter about this, which although certainly villianizes us, in many ways is very good for the homeless people we’re trying to help: homelessness is actually a subject being discussed at SXSW and these people are no longer invisible. It’s unfortunate how much information being shared is incorrect (an unresearched story by ReadWriteWeb which has now been updated is the epicenter of that misinformation).

The biggest criticism (which we agree with actually) is that Street Newspapers allow for content creation by the homeless (we encourage those to research this a bit more as it certainly does not work exactly as you would assume). This is definitely a part of the vision of the program but alas we could not afford to create a custom log-in page because it’s through a device we didn’t make. However, we’d really like to see iterations of the program in which this media channel of hotspots is owned by the homeless organizations and used as a platform for them to create content…We’re using SXSW as our beta test.”

You couldn’t ask for a more interactive story for the biggest digital conference on the planet, as the project has certainly highlighted the divide between digital haves and have-nots. Still, that BBH didn’t see the potential for backlash for this “charity begins at roam” exercise is surprising.

(Update: read more of BBH’s side of this here.)