In a time when everything has an app--when just about every company worth knowing about is mobile and everyone uses some form of social media--some would say digital services are their first priority.
Some would say that is exactly what's happening with a new "charitable innovation experiment" called "Homeless Hotspots". It's spearheaded by a company called BBH Labs, the "innovation unit" of the marketing company BBH. The experiment--which has already ended--debuted at SXSW this year and involved thirteen homeless participants as mobile hotspots; each person was given their own MiFi device and a t-shirt emblazoned with the words, "I am a 4G hotspot." Also included was their name and a code which gives customers access to 4G broadband service. Minutes could be purchased for a donation of the customer's choice, although the recommended price was $2.00 for fifteen minutes of service.
While WiFi is notoriously hard to come by at SXSW--largely in part because of the huge crowd it draws--the of using a person as a walking broadband service has a lot of people upset. BBH claims that this is just a new spin on the old idea of Street Newspapers, which are staffed by homeless individuals and sold by them for a donation. But many are disturbed by the comparison, citing that Street Newspapers allow the homeless to have a voice.
In their defense, a representative of BBH Saneel Radia--who is also being touted as the "mastermind" of the marketing event--wrote on their blog, "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 are doing this because we believe in the model of street newspapers."
Early criticism also points to the fact that the homeless issue should be met with concern on a daily basis, not because something is being offered in return for a donation.
"It is sickening that people will only consider giving to the homeless if they can receive a petty luxury in return. Homeless people don't owe you anything" said one commenter.
And there are other things to consider, such as some of the questions raised in this article by Campobello how many people are really willing to do business with a vagrant and what are their motives?
Twitter has been abuzz on this topic since news of the event broke. Here are some of the reactions:
But not everyone meets the idea with contention. John Bird of TheGuardian.com wrote "I suggest we turn BBH's plans into a new form of street smartness, and begin to turn street people into news and information providers. The homeless have more to contribute than simply being a part of the gadgetry. Many have been to the edge of the abyss, and looked over. They may need our encouragement and support, but more than anything they need our respect."
One Twitter user tweeted that she would be interested in the service:
Radia admits there are with the way the campaign was promoted and stated, "The worry is that these people are suddenly just hardware, but frankly, I wouldn't have done this if i didn't believe otherwise."