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Homeless People as 4G Hotspots: Innovative Social Inclusion or Disrespectful?

Tanya Gupta's picture

South by Southwest (SXSW) is a company that plans and executes conferences, trade shows, festivals and other events.  Collectively, SXSW sponsored events are the highest revenue-producing event for the Austin economy, with an estimated economic impact of $167 million in 2011 (Wikipedia).

The biggest SXSW story that recently made the rounds was that SXSW, through the company BBH wired homeless people so that they can provide 4G hotspots to “make the invisible “visible”.  The BBH company blog says:

This year in Austin … you’ll notice strategically positioned individuals wearing “Homeless Hotspot” t-shirts. These are homeless individuals in the Case Management program at Front Steps Shelter. They’re carrying MiFi devices. Introduce yourself, then log on to their 4G network via your phone or tablet for a quick high-quality connection. You pay what you want (ideally via the PayPal link on the site so we can track finances), and whatever you give goes directly to the person that just sold you access. We’re believers that providing a digital service will earn these individuals more money than a print commodity.

This has created a huge backlash, where blogs such as Gizmodo and others were outraged:

But it gives the homeless jobs! Yes, as would using them as human coffee tables, or hunting them as game, or having them dance for nickels in Superman outfits at your next dinner party. Working as hotspot is worse than not working at all (Homeless men turned into routers).

BBH, surprised at being cast as “the villain” issued an updated statement, the day the program terminated:

  • We are not selling anything. There is no brand involved. There is no commercial benefit whatsoever.
  • This is a test program that was always scheduled to end today (there’s no 2-week payment cycle)
  • Each of the Hotspot Managers keeps all of the money they earn.

We, at the People, Spaces, Deliberation blog look at innovative social schemes that use technology to empower the marginalized.  Do you think this deserves to be included in that category?  In Washington DC, for example, where we are physically located, as with any other city, we see that the homeless are often ignored as we avert our eyes.  They are, as BBH has said, “invisible” and this scheme makes them “visible”.  The question then becomes: is this visibility worse than invisibility ? Post your comments below.

Picture credit: flickr user Hessam

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