In what has become a highly controversial
move, advertising agency BBH transformed some of Austin’s homeless
people into mobile hotspots during SXSW Interactive. Thirteen homeless from Austin’s Front Steps
shelter donning an “I’m a 4G hotspot” T-shirt and armed with a MiFi
were strategically placed throughout SXSW and offered internet access
around their personal location to attendees.
Attendees were encouraged to donate money to the "Homeless Hotspots"
based on the amount of time they spent online, with a suggested
donation of $2 for every 15 minutes. Money was collected via PayPal,
with all of the proceeds of a hotspot going directly to the homeless
person who was wearing it.
homeless hotspot’s location was tracked on a virtual map, and logging
on to the website allowed you to find your closest hotspot, as well as
learn more about the person wearing it. The test program was designed
to be a modernized version of the Street Newspaper, a paper that is
created and sold by the homeless as a form of income. Rather than being
seen as a way to help the homeless, however, many SXSW attendees saw
the hotspots as something that made the homeless be seen as products
rather than people.
In a statement on its blog, BBH defended its actions, “Obviously, there’s an insane amount of chatter
about this, which although certainly villianizes us, in many ways is
very good for the homeless people we’re trying to help: homelessness is
actually a subject being discussed at SXSW and these people are no
At least one of homeless involved in the project, Melvin, agreed: “I
would say that these people are trying to help the homeless, and
increase awareness. They’re trying not to put us in a situation where
we’re stereotyped. That’s a good side of it, too — we get to talk to
people. Maybe give them a different perception of what homeless is
like,” he says in an interview with Buzzfeed.