The New York based advertising agency BBH has launched an initiative called ‘Homeless Hotspots’, which uses homeless people as wireless hotspots at South by South West festival in Austin, Texas.
The interactive branch of the festival, which ended yesterday, hosted a “charitable innovation initiative”, which attempts to modernise the buying and selling of street newspapers and support the homeless. The project equips 13 homeless people around Austin with 4G MiFi services and t-shirts that say, “I’m a 4G hotspot”. People that want to use the internet are encouraged to introduce themselves to the “homeless hotspots” and log on to their 4G network using their phone or tablet. Donations are left to the customer’s discretion, and go directly to the person who sold the access. BBH provide a $20 salary to volunteers regardless of sales.
With the growth of digital media, street newspapers face increased pressure. By taking the street paper model and modernising it, BBH say they are “offering homeless individuals an opportunity to sell a digital service instead of a material commodity”. “The model isn’t inherently broken” say BBH “It’s simply the output that’s archaic in the smartphone age.”
The “experiment” has received considerable interest and speculation. BBH say the initiative gives “homeless people an unedited voice so people can understand their lives”, but Twitter and blog responses have been mixed, with critics labeling the experiment “disturbing” and “dehumanising”.
In an article for The Guardian John Bird, co-founder of the Big Issue wrote:
“What BBH is advocating, and I hope it stays true to its words, is that this could be the beginning of a new form of work for the homeless that is not demeaning.”
But Bird was not unreserved in his appraisal of the scheme. He continued: “we should not see the homeless as simply immovable pieces of the background, open to exploitation. Rather we should see them as guardians, guides and informers who understand the local area in a completely different way.”
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