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Homeless Hotspots: insulting or ingenious?

Editor’s note: this piece arrives a few days later than expected. Apologies dear readers, new iPaddery + poor scheduling/communication means it’s only just seeing the light of day… We hope you still enjoy! James, over to you.

Last week, while gliding through my Google Reader (thank you Reeder), I found this story from Read Write Web about a ‘social experiment’ running alongside SXSW in Austin entitled ‘Homeless Hotspots‘.

I tweeted it, it was retweeted by some folk oh and then, an hour later, it appeared on Wired. News travels fast.

The premise is simple enough: equip the homeless of Austin with a 4G Mi-Fi, ask punters pay for access (minimum payment: $2) in 15min chunks and well, the rest is fairly obvious. Except, some people have taken offence

Personally, I fall down on the side of the positives:

  1. Income for the homeless. Consider that on other days they might sell a newspaper or a magazine, but as the digital age slowly creeps over us all, then this ‘trade’ will need an overhaul. I mean, having the Big Issue as an iPad app kind of defeats the object, right?
  2. Social interaction. Let’s say that 90% of the charity giving public gives, then goes. I’ve been known to ‘spare some change’ from time to time, but I have very rarely stuck around for conversation for longer than five minutes afterwards. The homeless hotspot by its very nature forces you to at least stay in the vicinity if the ‘hotspot’ in question for a quarter of an hour; increasing social interaction and further fighting the curse of the invisible people
  3. Intense and passion debate around an important issue. Yes the work is contentious. Yes it makes the inside of the back of your brain icky at the thought of people being ‘used’ in this way. And YES it makes you feel a little bit sick due to the sheer tastelessness of it all. BUT – listen closely – THAT’S KIND OF THE POINT.

Every day millions of homeless people are ignored by the pavement-strolling public and every day their plight gets worse.
As I said to a fellow tweeter on Monday

A social experiment that actually provokes unrest about the way we treat homeless people, sparking conversation and debate? Win.”

The fact that this took place at the media mecca that is SXSW makes it all the better.
Well done, BBH, well done indeed.

MIR Readers, opinions please –


  1. I think this was actually a really good idea, but implemented astonishingly incompetently. BBH’s responses to the criticism actually made it worse, making them seem totally out of touch and insensitive. The “people buy the magazines, but never read them” was just one of the highlights – maybe if they bothered to read something outside of their marketing bubble they would have realised that. The element that really annoyed me was the branding “I am a hotspot”. They thought they were being clever marketing types, in reality they’d just destroyed what could have been a good idea.

  2. That was one of the reason’s I said it was a good idea, badly implemented. The basic premise was sound, but the way it was implemented was clumsy and patronising – right down to the fact that they didn’t appear ready for the criticism and responded badly. It could have been a really creative idea that positively highlighted the issue of homelessness and positioned BBH as a socially responsible company. Instead it cam across as exploitative. 

  3. I really didn’t need a project making people wearing dehumanizing branding for money to feel unrest about homelessness.

    And it didn’t, not in me, not in others as I read. It started a conversation how misguided BBH was.

  4. Fair points. 

    Bigger question: pending changes on some of the above issues, do you see this as a viable option for the homeless (and digitally at risk) homeless entrepreneurs of today/tomorrow? 

  5. I was at SXSW this year, but I didn’t have the experience of running into any of these guys. I’ve read a few different points, but I’m of the opinion that it was a great experiment. 

    The ‘branding’ didn’t bother me – is there really such a difference between ‘I am a hotspot’ and ‘I can give you access to a hotspot’? (specifically on a t-shirt, where space is limited)

    Would it be just as crass and offensive if these homeless men had gone out on their own and replicated the whole project, but of their own volition (t-shirts included?) 

    All of the arguments against this experiment seem to suggest that simply because this agency (though not in connection with any of their clients) had the urge to provide financial and logistical assistance for this, it’s offensive, but had it happened on its own, no one would seem to care. 

  6. There is a very big difference between powerless people getting together and saying “Let’s do this together and we will look like this and we will talk about ourselves this way, that cool?” and a privileged group telling a powerless group “_You_ do this and _you_ will look like this and we will talk about _you_ that way. Here’s a non-structural token in return.”

  7. As I understood, this was 100% opt-in, and organized through the local homeless shelter. Nothing I’ve read has said there was any demands being made. It also wasn’t every single person who uses that homeless shelter – I believe I saw that this was only ~10 men for the experiment (don’t quote me on that number, though). 

  8. I agree that getting people meaningful work is a good idea – but there are so many things which don’t stack up…

    If the “hotspot” has a 4G conection – surely I will as well? Or at the very least a 3G connection. So why am I paying them?

    I don’t buy the social interaction bit – if I want network access it’s to check email etc, not to make small talk.

    When the 4G fails, how do I get a refund? Do I ask the homeless guy for my two buck back?

    The vendor wants to go to the loo, or buy a sandwich – do I have to run after him to maintain my connection?

    Does having an expensive MiFi type device make the vendor a target for robbery?

    How does the vendor recharge the MiFi?  Wander into a Starbucks and plug it in for an hour?

    As a piece of “blue sky thinking” it’s excellent. But I think it has too many problems to be viable.

  9. Recommend you head to the BBH’s source – they explain much of that in the comments. 

    Target for robbery: not likely during SXSW, but I believe they mentioned something about taking precautions for this, as well as for the men hawking the hotspots

    Recharge – they solved that, with battery packs, I believe. Not 100% sure, but it was also answered.


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