Fresh off the plane from this year’s South By Southwest Interactive conference I’ve been lining up all the blog posts I want to write. Rather than kicking things off by sharing one of the incredible panels or awesome events I attended, I wanted to dive into one of the most buzzed about issues that happened this year: Homeless Hotspots.

As you can imagine, when thousands of techies congregate within in a 5-mile radius for the hottest interactive event of the year, wireless network capacity is an issue. In an effort to help bring more network capacity to Austin and help out a few individuals along the way Bartle Bogle Hegarty’s BBH Labs launched Homeless Hotspots in Austin. Their campaign wasn’t just meant to give SXSW attendees access to an on demand 4G network, but also to promote awareness of an opportunity for these individuals.

Homeless Hotspots equips homeless individuals to become walking, talking wireless 4G hotspots. If you were down at SXSW and ran into one of them (sporting the Homeless Hotspot t-shirt), you could pay to connect to their network. The suggested rate was $2 for every 15 minutes, but anything you donated went straight into the pockets of that homeless individual.

At first this seems like a harmless idea, and a great way to provide an honest day’s work to those seeking employment. However, there was a lot of criticism directed toward BBH Labs for promoting their brand using those in less fortunate circumstances. Some believed that this campaign didn’t actually help the homeless because it didn’t guarantee a steady income or a reasonable fee. It was a one-time opportunity that may have gotten these individuals paid for a few days but didn’t actually do anything relative to helping the cause to end homelessness.

These claims sound fair and true, but looking at it from the perspective of the 13 men and women who sported the t-shirt for the last few days you may see things differently. Rudolph a local from Austin has been homeless for a year and makes it a point to have a positive attitude about his circumstance. Clarence is from New Orleans and has been “houseless” since Katrina. Melvin is from Ohio and is actively searching for a job and home, creating awareness that homelessness is not a choice. Stacia has been homeless for over ten years due to an abusive marriage and is working to put her life back in order. (You can check out the remaining 9 individuals who acted as a hotspot here.)

In the eyes of the 13 participants, this campaign has helped them at a time in their life when they needed it the most. BBH Labs has been active in ensuring that their motivation and purpose behind this campaign was not to promote themselves in anyway. Their most recent blog post outlines a few facts they feel haven’t been shared with the world, including:

  • We are not selling anything. There is no brand involved. There is no commercial benefit whatsoever.
  • This is a test program that was always scheduled to end today (there’s no 2-week payment cycle)
  • Each of the Hotspot Managers keeps all of the money they earn. The more they sell their own access, the more they as individuals make (it’s not a collected pot to be shared unless people choose to donate generally).
  • Underheard in NY is NOT becoming a reality TV show. The confidential plans are much more akin to an interactive documentary. Regardless of what happens, it will stay true to the original idea: to give homeless people an unedited voice so people can understand their lives.
  • The biggest criticism (which we agree with actually) is that Street Newspapers allow for content creation by the homeless (we encourage those to research this a bit more as it certainly does not work exactly as you would assume). This is definitely a part of the vision of the program but alas we could not afford to create a custom log-in page because it’s through a device we didn’t make. However, we’d really like to see iterations of the program in which this media channel of hotspots is owned by the homeless organizations and used as a platform for them to create content. We are doing this because we believe in the model of street newspapers.

I’ve got opinions that lay on either side of the line, but overall I think more good than bad was done in Austin this year. I’d love to get your opinion whether you were attending or not!

What say you?