Homeless People Used as 4G Hotspots at SXSW

Homeless Hotspots
Source: Homelesshotspots.org
Homeless Hotspots

A digital marketing company is sponsoring homeless people to act as wireless hotspots during the tech start-up conference South by Southwest in Austin, Texas.

BBH Labs has partnered with a local homeless shelter for the project, named Homeless Hotspots, and basically the initiative works like this: Homeless individuals will be "strategically positioned" around different SXSW locations wearing "I am a 4G Hotspot" T-shirts. The individuals are carrying MiFi devices, which allow for internet connection. You introduce yourself, log on to their 4G network and pay what you want. The individual with the MiFi device gets to keep all the money they earn.

BBH says they are trying to model the Homeless Hotspot project after Street Newspapers, which are newspapers created and sold by homeless individuals.

"We’re believers that providing a digital service will earn these individuals more money than a print commodity," BBH Labs website states.

Well, as you might of guessed, using homeless people as WiFi hot spots has caused some controversy and raised questions as to whether it is proper to use humans as infrastructure.

"It is a neat idea on a practical level, but also a little dystopian. When the infrastructure fails us… we turn human beings into infrastructure?" writes David Gallagher, of the New York Times on the SXSW tumblr.

Also, using people as human hot spots doesn't exactly follow the Street Newspaper model, as Jon Mitchell from ReadWriteWeb points out.

"The Homeless Hotspots website frames this as an attempt "to modernize the Street Newspaper model employed to support homeless populations." There's a wee little difference, though. Those newspapers are written by homeless people, and they cover issues that affect the homeless population.

By contrast, Homeless Hotspots are helpless pieces of privilege-extending human infrastructure. It's like it never occurred to the people behind this campaign that people might read street newspapers. They probably just buy them to be nice and throw them in the garbage."

BBH responded to the claim that its model did not allow for content to be created by the homeless population on its websiteMonday.

"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."

Homeless Hotspots is in beta testing and will not last past today.

email: cadie.thompson@nbcuni.com