And Finally

Homeless hotspots divide opinion in Austin

By | Published on Tuesday 13 March 2012

Homeless Hotspots

The next big thing in social networking is yet to emerge out of the techie bit of South By Southwest this year, though that might be because everyone’s been too busy discussing the ethics of turning homeless people into wi-fi hotspots.

The techie innovations division of ad agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty has used the Texas music and technology convention – with its masses of wi-fi hungry tech-heads – to pilot the idea of giving homeless people mobile internet connections, and then letting them charge people two dollars for fifteen minutes of connectivity. With parallels to Big Issue type projects, supporters say it helps the homeless make a legitimate income, and encourages people to engage with those living on the streets, rather than just walking on by.

But others have hit out at the project – which isn’t officially affiliated with SxSW – accusing the ad firm of turning the homeless of Austin into a cheap gimmick. BBH Labs took to its website to defend the project, and insisted it had focused attention on the issue of homelessness in Austin during the big SxSW festivities, while providing those down on their luck with some extra income. It then invited people to leave comments on the project on its site.

Opinion was divided, though early supporters seemed to get drowned out by detractors. According to the BBC, one wrote that “my homeless hotspot keeps wandering out of range” before adding: “By literally labelling the person as a ‘hotspot’, you are priming an affluent, iPad-toting public to think of that person as a commodity”.

Asked by the Beeb for comment, Big Issue co-founder John Bird said he was so far undecided, musing: “If all BBH are doing is turning these people into an aerial and asking them to stand still then they are just treating homeless people the same way the Victorians did when they asked them to hold posters. But if BBH is honest about the idea that this could ultimately lead to them becoming content creators providing material to a platform, then that’s different – but the jury is still out”.

Meanwhile Buzzfeed quoted one of the homeless people acting as a hotspot during SxSW, who said: “I would say that these people are trying to help the homeless and increase awareness… [and] we get to talk to people, [and] maybe give them a different perception of what homelessness is like”.

Of course those buzzy buzzy “you gotta see these guys, Sony are interested” new bands playing South By this week probably should do everything they can to support the city’s homeless. Give it two years and it might be them living on the streets of Austin, perhaps busking with their wi-fi enabled guitar.