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Homeless hotspots at South By Southwest fest: Fallout from an awful idea

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Over the weekend, I attended South By Southwest Interactive in Austin, where I was scheduled to host a medical marijuana seminar; look for more on that subject in this space soon. But one of the most intriguing, and controversial, projects on display wasn't at the convention. It was on the backs of homeless locals acting as mobile wifi hotspots.

Essentially, fourteen homeless people from a downtown shelter were dispatched to various locations throughout the city. There, each one would stand in place like a human beacon while tech nerds e-mailed and tweeted to their heart's content on their expensive toys right on the sidewalk. Here's the concept, as explained by the folks at BBH Labs, the company responsible for this marketing disaster:

This year in Austin, as you wander between locations murmuring to your co-worker about how your connection sucks and you can't download/stream/tweet/instagram/check-in, you'll notice strategically positioned individuals wearing "Homeless Hotspot" t-shirts. These are homeless individuals in the Case Management program at Front Steps Shelter.

The experiment has already garnered some negative feedback for BBH Labs, as an Associated Press story in today's Denver Post points out.

But setting tact aside, some of BBH Labs' spin will strike anyone who was in Austin and paying attention as questionable. For starters, the company told the AP that while the program was intended to start on Friday, poor weather pushed it back to Sunday. But that wasn't the case at all.

I was in the hospital all day Sunday, so I have no clue if homless hotspotters were on the roam that day as well. But they were most certainly out on Friday and Saturday as I walked around downtown Austin in the constant downpour, and they were hitting up anyone and everyone passing by.

BBH Labs reps contend they paid $50 for six hours, not to mention a $20 "stipend" given to the homeless participants each day they worked. But that's not what a homeless hire told me on Saturday. After unsuccessfully hitting up two passing conventioneers, who rejected his offer by saying "I've already got wifi on my phone," he turned to me as I stood in a doorway, taking shelter from a rain burst. "Can you spare a dollar, man?" he asked me. "These fuckers pay me $20 a day for this shit." He mentioned nothing about getting $50 for six hours.

I ended up giving him a few dollars and watched him scamper across 6th Street trying to hustle up more people who clearly didn't want or need his service.

Calls to BBH Labs in New York weren't immediately returned, but the firm's website has a growing FAQ about the issue. It asserts that the company wasn't selling access and received no commercial gain from the promotion; hotspot "managers" were allowed to keep any money or donations they earned. Moreover, the statement insists the program was always supposed to end on Monday.

And not a moment too soon.

More from our News archive: "BitTorrent motion alleges legal business model targeting porn downloaders."

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