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Homeless as Wireless Hotspots: Opportunity or Exploitation?

By Kenyon Farrow

March 13, 2012

Homeless as Wireless Hotspots: Opportunity or Exploitation?

The internet and social media have been buzzing all day with arguably one of the biggest national stories on the homeless in many years: a tech company is using homeless people as wireless hotspots for hipsters attending the annual South by Southwest (SXSW) conference in Austin, Texas. The homeless staffers stationed around the conference grounds wear a hotspot device and festival attendees can donate money to them in order to access the wireless 4G connection.

Some people have derided the practice. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite op-ed for the Washington Post stated, "So many homeless, and such a need in today's society for fast Internet access -- put them together and what have you got? What you've got is a dangerously new low in degrading the human being down to the level of a listening post."

BBH New York, the company behind the project, intentionally used this as a way to have people attending the conference interact with homeless people, and potentially learn from people they might not have ever bothered to speak to, and to raise the issue of homelessness in a new and innovative way (The also created a website about the project HomelessHotspots.org). At the same time, the incentive for people who are homeless is financial, and an opportunity to engage with people, as street based homeless people are often very physically and socially isolated. They also partnered with an organization in Austin that serves people who are homeless.

By far the best piece so far was published on GOOD by Tim Fernholz. He responds by pointing out that "A real-life contrast are the volunteers, sponsored by FedEx, who walk around the convention wearing jackets (in 80-degree weather) festooned with USB ports so people can gather around them to charge their phones and other electronic devices. The promotion struck me as rather dystopian, but I didn't hear many complaints about the program dehumanizing the human chargers, or any other number of ridiculously demeaning publicity stunts at the festival -- yes, there are "booth babes" at SXSW. That's not to say BBH isn't benefitting from having their agency's name in front of the many attendees at the festival, although perhaps the critical press will leave them more tarnished than they had hoped. But whatever problems exist in their model, it seems strange to criticize one of the only companies in a sea of mindless self-promotion that is advertising itself while having a positive impact, however small, on people who need a helping hand."

What do you think?

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