During SXSW, New York based Marketing firm BBH Labs equipped homeless people on Austin streets with devices that turned them into wireless hotspots. People could pay with cash or via PayPal an amount they felt appropriate to access the Internet, and the walking human hotspots kept the money.
There’s been some controversy, understandably, about whether these efforts were helping the homeless, or just straight up exploiting them.
A March 13 post on Ragan’s PR Daily by Michael Sebastian calls the hotspot gimmick a “PR disaster,” while Gizmodo called it “unalloyed human degradation.” Meanwhile, Wired called it “darkly satirical.” Sebastian also claims that the Twitter-sphere used words like horrifying and dehumanizing for the project.
Alan Graham, president and CEO of Austin’s Mobile Loaves and Fishes, sees it differently. Graham has been serving the city’s homeless population for years and personally knows some of the individuals recruited as human hotspots. He called the campaign “brilliant” and said it “probably achieved every objective the people who designed it were hoping it would.”
Saneel Radia, head of innovation for BBH Labs, counts the wifi effort a success as well. “What we hoped to achieve was clearly helping Austin's homeless population, but our ambition didn't just stop there. We also wanted to bring some potential digital innovation to street newspapers around the world.” The SXSW project partnered with Austin homeless shelter Front Steps, which promoted it via its Facebook page.
The hotspot project's connection with street newspapers isn't clear, but Radia says they are "an incredibly valuable tool to homeless populations around the world and most people don't even understand why; we didn't before we researched them. They're a conduit to conversation and that's important for a group that is all too often treated as though they're invisible. In terms of it being a success, Front Steps certainly believes it is. That makes us really happy. The ultimate success will be when parts of this test help specific street papers or shelters, who we hope will adopt the parts that worked and learn from the parts that didn't. We're assessing all of that now.”
The SXSW human-hotspot project was not sustainable long-term, Graham says, given the wide availability of free hotspots. “You’re never going to get people to pay for wi-fi use for long even if you have beautiful, bikini-clad women roaming around with a hotspot. But I thought it was a great way to call attention to the company and to people who really want to work. Every one of those guys doing it were having a great time, and none of them felt exploited,” he said. “I don’t know how you exploit someone when you pay them a fair wage to do something.”
Criticism, Graham feels, is coming from people who didn’t know much about the campaign. He also sees a bit of hypocrisy in the jabs: “There isn’t a human or a company on this planet that isn’t in the business of exploiting you to separate you from your money, whether they’re using puppies, wounded vets, or anybody else.”
Graham readily admits that Mobile Loaves and Fishes itself was exploiting the SXSW crowds, with its Street Treats ice cream tricycle staffed by its clients. “Hey, we put a guy on a billboard; I’m all for appropriately exploiting someone. What people are really complaining about is that they don’t want to be faced with the homeless issue: not here, at an event that’s cool, hip, and fun and maybe a little elitist and materialistic.”
MLF has owned the Street Treats concept for a while, but it hasn’t really gained traction because the individual who initiated it became ill. “It’s like when you go into Mexico, you walk into a gauntlet of entrepreneurs selling stuff,” Graham says. “It used to be that way in the US: you could create something and go out and sell it. But we’ve regulated so much that you can’t even have a lemonade stand for a couple of 10 year olds.”
While MLF can’t change that, Graham says, they can help folks work around it. The organization obtained a permit for the ice cream bicycle, negotiated inventory and ice purchases, and bought uniforms — everything, he says, someone needs to be effective in the business. Launching Street Treats during SXSW was grabbing hold of an opportunity, not unlike the homeless hotspots.
“You really need something sustainable,” Graham says. “I love the hotspot feel, but it’s not sustainable. An ice cream truck could be a sustainable living for someone who wants to work. Every night, these guys have been out in SXSW. Between tips and profits, they’ve probably netted about $200 each in a few hours.”
Was the BBH ploy a success? In addition to the above media coverage, it generated a mention in the New York Times and a segment on the Mar 14 Daily Show. If you believe the old saying that there’s no such thing as bad PR, then the answer is an unqualified yes.
A few homeless guys made some relatively easy money standing on the street wearing t-shirts and 4G devices. That probably isn’t any harder than standing on a corner flying a sign. No one made them do it, and it didn't appear to hurt anyone.
And, who knows, maybe a few SXSW attendees gave a moment’s thought to the problem of homelessness? But awareness only goes so far. Did any of those hotspot users go home and do anything about the problem? Did any of the critics propose any alternatives?
In the long run, buzz isn't likely to do much good for the homeless. I'll put my money on the ice cream.