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Homeless Hotspots: Controversy At 4G Speeds

Homeless people wearing T shirts reading "I am a 4G hotspot" are offering SXSW attendees network access in exchange for a donation. Is this awful or innovative?

Among the creative displays from brands, startups and other entities during SXSW in Austin, one street-level project has stood out, though maybe not in the way its creators intended.

BBH Labs, an arm of ad agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty, rolled out something called "Homeless Hotspots," during SXSW, whereby homeless people in Austin are offering conference-goers and other passersby access to a 4G network, in exchange for a donation. BBH Labs describes the project as "a charitable innovation" and a modern take on the street newspaper model, where homeless people produce and sell newspapers as a fundraising tool. As part of the "Homeless Hotspots" program, homeless participants equipped with 4G MiFi devices wear T-shirts that read "I’m (name here), a 4G Hotspot." SXSW types can give the T-shirt wearer a donation and, presumably, sit in proximity to the homeless person while using the advertised service, thus putting a human face to an issue.

"Homeless Hotspots" was designed as an Austin-based project to address homelessness there, says Saneel Radia, head of BBH Labs and director of innovation at BBH. "When we were researching the issue there, what was most striking was the continued use of street newspapers. We assumed that model would be outdated. When we looked into it and spoke with our shelter partner here, we realized that street papers give people more than money, they give social interaction. So this project is about giving homeless people an opportunity to interact with a society that usually walks right by them." Of course, Hotspots helps homeless people make money, but it also gives them an outlet to express themselves, Radia says.

Critics have complained that this effort feels exploitative and effectively turns people into gear. ReadWriteWeb’s Jon Mitchell opined that the "digital divide has never hit us over the head with a more blunt display of unselfconscious gall," adding that the project cast the homeless as "helpless pieces of privilege-extending human infrastructure." With street papers, at least, the participants are involved in creating content and telling their stories.

Radia says the whole point of the SXSW project is that the hotspots are tied directly to the homeless "vendor"; customers have to speak to and interact with them to use the service and customers are also given a link to a bio for the hotspot seller. "You have to engage with them on a human level; it’s not intended to be dehumanizing at all," Radia says.

Radia says that some of the initial criticism and reporting have been misleading (and Mitchell states in his RRW piece that he hadn’t seen or interacted with the Hotpots participants in Austin). Because there’s an ad agency behind the project, rather than a nonprofit, people have also assumed the Hotspots project was in service of a brand, which isn’t the case, says Radia. The agency worked on the initiative with Austin’s Front Steps Homeless Shelter and all proceeds go directly to program participants.

And this isn’t new territory for BBH Labs. The shop earned positive buzz for a project last year called Underheard in New York, whereby four homeless men in New York were tapped to chronicle their experiences via Twitter. The initiative, driven through BBH Labs’ internship program, was designed to make homeless people more visible in the day-to-day lives of more fortunate New Yorkers. The Hotspots project shares that goal.

Radia says the anecdotal response to Hotspots from SXSW attendees has been positive and he says BBH Labs will be releasing more information about how the project works after it concludes (Hotspots runs through Tuesday).

What do you think? Is "Homeless Hotspots" an edgy but interesting way to generate awareness of homelessness and put a face on homeless individuals, or is it an ill-conceived attention-getter that objectifies the homeless and throws into sharp relief the gap between the poorest in our society and the circus of privileged self-absorption that is SXSW?

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