Monday, March 12, 2012

'Homeless Hotspots' at SXSW: empowering idea or dehumanizing concept?

Wi-fi service has become so ubiquitous that its been added to things such as vending machines, but now it's been added to something ... or perhaps, someone ... that has raised a great of controversy: homeless people at the South by SouthWest (SXSW) conference in Austin, Texas.

13 homeless men have been turned into wireless hotspots, of sorts. They are wearing t-shirts emblazoned with:


Homeless Hotspots is a "charitable experiment" by BBH Labs, which has partnered with Front Steps Shelter. Front Steps is a private non-profit organization contracted by the City of Austin to manage the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless (ARCH). Homeless Hotspots has equipped people from Front Steps’ case management system with 4G MiFi devices, turning them into as pay-per-use hotspots for attendees.

BBH Labs says the program officially "pay-what-you-wish," although the recommended donation is $2 for 15 minutes of wi-fi. The homeless MiFi router, er manager, is paid with the proceeds. If you pay through PayPal, however, as most do, it takes some time to reach the "manager."

The program is seen as a possible replacement for the not-quite-as-ubiquitous-as-wi-fi newspapers that many homeless sell today. BBH Labs sees the SXSW experiment as exposure for the program as well as data for how well it might scale. BBH Labs’ Saneel Radia wrote, "We’re believers that providing a digital service will earn these individuals more money than a print commodity."

Here's what the company said in a blog post outlining the program:

"One particular aspect [of the homeless issue] we find intriguing is Street Newspapers, which are print publications created and sold by homeless populations as a form of entrepreneurial employment. The model has proven successful enough to be adopted in cities spanning 30 countries. The issue however, is that like any print publication, these newspapers are under duress from the proliferation of digital media. How often do you see someone “buy” a paper, only to let the homeless individual keep it? This not only prevents the paper from serving as a tool for the individual to avoid begging, but it proves how little value people actually place on the publication itself. Yet the model isn’t inherently broken. It’s simply the output that’s archaic in the smartphone age.

Make it Yours
"So we decided to modernize it."

Providing wi-fi instead of street newspapers is a more modern take on the matter, but that's ignoring the fact, of course, that free wi-fi is becoming so popular that coverage-less places, at least in major urban environments, are not that common any longer.

In addition, this program is being seen as dehumanizing to the participants. Radia also wrote that BBH Labs is aware that such criticism might occur. "The worry is that these people are suddenly just hardware, but frankly, I wouldn't have done this if i didn't believe otherwise. We're very open to this criticism."

They're not just open to criticism, they're receiving plenty of it. For example, on Twitter:

Anniina Jokinen:
Anyone else find using homeless persons as "Homeless Hotspots" at SXSWi disturbing, dehumanizing, offensive?

Tim Carmody:
We did this, people. What happened? America happened. RT @AntDeRosa: Homeless being used as WiFi hotspots at #SXSW…

kanyi maqubela:
Homeless hotspots at #sxsw scares me.

While the public has been quick to criticize, the managers themselves don't see an issue with the program. More than people using codes to leverage the wi-fi, however, people have been asking about the program, which has proven tiring to some.

Melvin, one of the Homeless Hotspots, says he certainly doesn't feel the program is dystopian, as the New York Times called it. He said, "I don't feel that way at the moment, heh, but of course that all depends on some other issues" speaking, of course, of getting paid in the end.

What do you think? Dystopian, or a modern way to empower the homeless?

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