The South by Southwest (SXSW) conference held annually in Austin, Texas, draws people from around the world who want to stay up to date on the latest trends in music, film, and technology. Both established companies and startups bring their A-games to demonstrate their new ideas in interactivity, but one organization has been accused of going too far with it’s “homeless hotspots.” As reported by The New York Times:

BBH Labs, the innovation unit of the international marketing agency BBH, outfitted 13 volunteers from a homeless shelter with the devices, business cards and T-shirts bearing their names: “I’m Clarence, a 4G Hotspot.” They were told to go to the most densely packed areas of the conference, which has become a magnet for those who want to chase the latest in technology trends.

The smartphone-toting, social-networking crowds often overwhelm cellular networks in the area, creating a market that BBH Labs hoped to serve with the “Homeless Hotspots” project, which it called a “charitable experiment.” It paid each participant $20 a day, and they were also able to keep whatever customers donated in exchange for the wireless service.

If you’ve ever been to a sporting event or concert you can imagine how jammed up the cell phone and wi-fi coverage must be at a conference filled with techies, but is outfitting fellow human beings with electronics an acceptable solution? There’s so much to be said for the fact that this effort is a form of charity and the rest of the companies at SXSW probably  gave Austin’s homeless population no attention and certainly not the chance to earn an honest days living — indeed the real tragedy is that homelessness exists at all. Yet at its best, this form of charity features wages that are insultingly low ($20 for an entire day?) and the sense that the humanity of these “hotspot” individuals is being thrown by the wayside.

What do you think?

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  • Pseudonym

    Well, I think one has to look at corporate and government charity realistically. When corporations and governments get involved in a cause, most times there is going to be an ulterior motive. That’s just the way it is- they’re not going to give large sums of money away for free.

    Anywhoo, the real question with this is whether the benefits outweigh the negative impact. As I read in another article, it does force people to interact with the homeless if they want the Internet, gives homeless a way to make income, and it provides Wifi in areas such as parks, plazas, etc. HOWEVER, word is that they’re using this service to track people’s spending habits. DICEY!!!!

    In terms of the wages, I think it’s no different from those “Street Sense”/”Street Smart” newspaper operations in major cities. I would see how the operation is run before judging. One has to see if there are any risks/losses (i.e. people losing the devices or having them stolen) and also gauge how successful the effort is. I think if people wait and see instead of whining and complaining early, the effort can be eventually tweaked into a legitimate employment opportunity if it shows to be a great investment.

    For all of these people complaining, how many homeless people are they employing?

    • Pearlsrevealed

      Ditto…. This is so over the top I’d rather wait to read about the impact of these shenanigans 6 months later. On the surface it does seem like a new way to exploit the vulnerable. Beats sex slavery. (that’s sarcasm)

  • Hmm

    So grossed out by this. The idea is great but the $20/day struck me as completely mean spirited. Again, the concept is awesome and the idea behind it could be great to raise awareness as well as rehabilitate these men and women–starting with giving them an honest wage. Poor execution.