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SXSW 2012: Ad Agency Under Fire for Using Homeless as Wifi Hotspots

UPDATED: BBH Labs has outfitted 13 homeless people with wireless routers as part of a “Homeless Hotspots” initiative.

Austin, Texas

An ad agency’s use of some of Austin’s homeless as wifi hotspots during the SXSW festival has become a hot topic itself in the first days of the event.

As part of what it calls “a charitable innovation experiment,” BBH Labs has outfitted 13 homeless people with wireless routers as part of a “Homeless Hotspots” initiative. The effort, which is not affiliated with the festival, is designed both to improve connectability for SXSW Interactive attendees and to provide a community service to the city’s homeless community.

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But BBH has come under fire by some critics who see the stunt as exploitative, while the company maintains that there is no profit incentive for anyone other than those participating homeless, who get to keep any money they earn through Paypal donations for access.

“It’s definitely a touchy situation," says BBH New York creative director Tim Nolan. "Social awareness is a main goal, so we can check that box off."

With partner Saneel Radi, Nolan runs an internal innovation division called BBH Labs, where they hatched the idea for the Homeless Hotspots. Since criticism began to build and amplify through social media proliferation beginning Sunday about 10 p.m., Nolan has been at the local Austin shelter Front Step observing the increasing hysteria ("homeless as antenna" and "human routers" headlines) and feeling frustrated by misrepresentation of the program's goals.

Nolan says that in addition to social awareness, the idea was to test an alternative to the street newspaper model that enlists the homeless to write, report, print and distribute their own news. So instead of traditional large-format signage, they sent the homeless men and women out into the crowded streets with $400 worth of technology to mingle with the 286,000 additional people in Austin during SXSW.

“None of us has any time to look up, it’s a very noisy atmosphere," says Nolan. "What we wanted to create was that one-to-one engagement. It forces this conversation." Nolan points out that three times as many people volunteered for the program than the 13 they ultimately chose through discussions with case management, and that the participants have been talking about how they “feel empowered and entrepreneurial," Nolan says. "Each one of them looked at this hotspot as their business. Each one of them took this on in a very serious manner.”

The four-day experiment ended 4 p.m. Monday, and Nolan says that expanding the program to other cities and in new ways is a genuine possibility. “The next logical step is to create a content platform to extend the voice of everyone involved," he says. "because one of the strongest elements is to get that personal one-on-one conection with Jonathan or Dusty or Willie, or any of the people that worked with us for the past four days.”

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Radia has also defended the program online: “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 longer invisible,” he said in a blog post.