New York-based marketing firm BBH is running what they're calling a "charitable experiment" this week at the South by Southwest tech and arts festival in Austin, Texas. They've outfitted 12 homeless men, and one woman, with equipment that turns them into walking 4G wireless hotspots. It's a simple, innovative solution to an important, pressing problem: lack of internet.
Anyone who's spent some time wandering the streets of a city knows this is a problem. You've maybe even been there yourself. And you've definitely seen those poor souls, standing on the corner, unable to get a strong signal on their phone, or, even worse, only able to connect to a slow Edge or 3G network.
This year in Austin, as you wonder between locations murmuring to your coworker 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. They're carrying MiFi devices. Introduce yourself, then log on to their 4G network via your phone or tablet for a quick high-quality connection. You pay what you want (ideally via the PayPal link on the site so we can track finances), and whatever you give goes directly to the person that just sold you access.
Obviously, there are questions. Is this program a sustainable way to solve an urgent problem? Wouldn't it be better to attack the systemic issues that create internetlessness in the first place — to address the decades' worth of cuts to infrastructure and aid, and the cultural biases that lead people to blame lack of internet on personal choices and moral failings? And isn't there a more compassionate and dignified way to treat those without internet than forcing them to stand next to homeless people wearing "I'm a 4G Hotspot" t-shirt?
But these are questions for another time. SXSW isn't about the long term. It's not for people who think about "complex systems" or "the roots of the problem." South By is about innovation. It's about shifting paradigms. It's about tackling real problems from the unique, fresh perspective of design and marketing. It's about thinking outside the box. And thanks to BBH, it looks like people all over Austin will be leaving their boxes for good. Because what could be worse than living inside the metaphorical box of weak signals and slow download speeds?