Besides appearances by celebrities such as Al Gore and Jay-Z and buzz over what the next hot app or startup will be, another topic caught the attention of attendees at South by Southwest on Monday.
Around the festival's venues in downtown Austin, there were homeless people wearing T-shirts identifying themselves as a "Homeless Hotspot." They had devices that allowed them to offer 4G Wi-Fi hotspot access for donations. They also received a daily $20 stipend. The experiment, which ended Monday, by New York-based ad agency BBH involved clients from the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless, and it's drawing some strong criticism.
On Wired.com, Tim Carmody decried, "The homeless turned not just into walking, talking hotspots, but walking, talking billboards for a program that doesn't care anything at all about them or their future. ... So long as it can prove that the real problem with homelessness is that it doesn't provide a service."
Festival attendees discussed the Wired.com post and others from tech blogs Monday over Twitter, and it spread to sites such as CNN.com and Slate.
Tim Nolan, creative director at BBH who is attending SXSW for the program, said he was following the flurry of blog posts and tweets. He said that the firm expected a response but perhaps not as big of a response as it got.
"We definitely knew that this could be a provocative issue. We also expected some response that may be perceived as negative," Nolan said. "I think the key to where a lot of the negative sort of chatter is coming from is from what Twitter does best: bite-sized bits of information that rapidly get disseminated."
Front Steps, the nonprofit organization that runs the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless, was approached about the idea by BBH. Front Steps hesitated at first, said Mitchell Gibbs, director of development and communications.
"I thought, at first, ‘Here's someone else who wants to take advantage of homeless people,' " Gibbs said.
But he said that changed as they learned more about BBH's past campaigns focused on the homeless, including a well-received effort to give homeless people in New York cellphones and Twitter accounts to help them tell their own stories through social media. Gibbs said Front Steps also saw the need for entrepreneurial opportunities.
So Front Steps brought the pilot proposal to selected clients and let them decide whether they wanted to participate, Gibbs said.
Clarence Jones, 54, was one of about a dozen participants and said he didn't feel exploited. "I feel that I was doing my job, and I did it successfully," said Jones. "It was a job to us, and we did it to the best of our ability. We're just homeless people trying to provide a service to the community."
At SXSW Interactive, where marketing stunts such as FedEx's human charging stations (they wore jackets that allowed festival goers to charge their phones) are common, attendees had different reactions to the hotspots program.
"It seems like a more real, tangible and nice way to call attention to their plight using the South by Southwest backdrop, said Tyson Goodridge of Boston. "To be a hotspot, you have to be near that person, so that proximity alone allows for dialogue to spark."
Tanya Isley of Round Rock agreed. "South by Southwest is a place where ideas are born, and this is an interactive idea," she said.
Others were more skeptical. "It doesn't sound right to me," said Dustin Adams of New York. "It sounds like they might be taking advantage of them. I imagine they are not paying them the same as they would a working-class person."
Gibbs said many Front Steps clients have been reporting back about the sparking of conversations that would not have happened ordinarily.
"That alone, in my mind, has made the program a success," Gibbs said. "We're happy overall, because this is not about the money," he said. "I don't know if it's a sustainable way to solve (homeless issues), but it deserves a second look."
Contact Nancy Flores at 912-2559; contact Omar L. Gallaga at 445-3672