An opportunity missed?

A well-intentioned campaign to help the homeless was rejected by society, but who are we to deny them the right to earn a living.

Read time 5min 20sec

We've all seen them. The ones wearing yellow bibs peddling the Homeless Talk newspaper at intersections. Maybe you sheepishly avert your gaze when they ask you to spare R7 for a copy of the street newspaper. Maybe you give the odd vendor R10 and let them keep the change and your would-be copy of the paper to sell to someone else. Or maybe you just don't acknowledge them at all.

Poverty is a reality in SA and it's something we can't keep ignoring or hoping will go away on its own.

Which is why the concept of Homeless Hotspots in the US intrigued me, even though not everyone has welcomed the idea.

Using ICTs to address and hopefully overcome poverty is an untapped area and we need these types of experiments to see what ICTs can do for us.

Tarryn Giebelmann, ITWeb

Conceptualised by branding firm Bartle Bogle Hegarty (BBH), the idea was to provide homeless people with 'MiFi' devices, essentially turning them into mobile WiFi hotspots. They were to be deployed at SXSW, the annual music, film and interactive conference in Austin, Texas, where they would provide conference-goers with 4G services for a recommended price of $2 for 15 minutes' access. Users of the service could pay more if they wanted and vendors got to keep all the money they earned.

The idea was to mimic the newspaper vendor model and it was believed vendors would make more money selling 4G access than if they were simply selling newspapers.

Innovative? Possibly. Ethical? Not many people seem to think so.

The campaign has been slammed for exploiting the homeless, with some people taking issue with the fact that the vendors' T-shirts read: “I'm 'so-and-so', I'm a 4G hotspot”, rather than something along the lines of, “I'm so-and-so, speak to me about 4G access”. Would they have reacted differently, I wonder, if the service was being offered by scantily clad university students who were marketing the company?

Now I'm not sure which side of the fence I prefer to be on, so I'm going to straddle it for now.

On first reading of this story, I thought it was a clever idea, especially if the vendors are willing to participate, and who are we to deny them the right to earn a living? Granted, this would never work on the side of the road, but it's ideally suited to conferences and big events where there is no WiFi coverage, and that was the thinking behind the campaign anyway.

There's also the argument that ICTs are being used to address poverty and are providing an alternative means of income for someone who has stared at his or her reflection in a closed car window one too many times.

On the other hand, being mobile 4G hotspots, some suggest the vendors are commoditised and dehumanised in a way and, I'll admit, it must be pretty darn awkward for them to stand around while random people access Facebook, Twitter and send e-mails.

Of course there's the feasibility question, too. How desperate are people to use WiFi connections when smartphones can access the Internet via alternative methods anyway? Is it not easier to send a mail via 3G than to hunt down a vendor for access one has to pay for anyway?

Before I hop to the left or the right of the fence, I tried to contact BBH with some questions I had and was directed to two blog posts. They appear to be damage control posts as they focus on misconceptions around the campaign and go to great lengths to dampen confusion.

BBH claims the vendors would have made a minimum of $50 a day (about R381 at current rates), which is not too shabby for five to six hours' work, and again, it stresses this was the minimum earning potential.

While the company says it has no current plans to continue with the campaign, it claims it has been approached by a number of homeless advocacy groups that see the potential in it and want to get involved. And if the homeless support it, and they're not feeling exploited, then what's the problem exactly?

The company argues that the street newspaper is a dying model, burdened by the threat digital media is posing to the print publication industry. I can understand this, and maybe we do need new income-generating models for the poverty-stricken who are trying to eke out an honest living instead of taking the criminal route.

There's a gentleman who sells Homeless Talk near where I stay and everyday, without fail, he waves at me as I drive past. I've never had a conversation with him, but I'm a little sad on days he's not there. That one little wave seems to cheer me up for the day. And that's exactly what BBH was aiming for - it wanted the public to engage with the homeless, talk to them, get to know them, instead of winding up windows as we pull up to an intersection.

But what started out as an honest charity campaign backfired hopelessly and I am a little disappointed (I think I'm deciding which part of the fence I prefer). I would have liked to see the outcome of the campaign if it had been active for longer. There are lessons to be learnt in this. Using ICTs to address and hopefully overcome poverty is an untapped area and we need these types of experiments to see what ICTs can do for us.

And until we come up with those plans, it's a matter of trial and error. If nothing else, Homeless Hotspots has definitely drawn attention to the plight of the poor in Texas, and maybe that's the starting point we need, if only we could get the cynics to think along the same lines as the homeless. Was it not Einstein who said, “In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity”?

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