Homeless Hotspots

Ivan Schneider, Writer, specializing in financial technology | 3/15/2012 | 25 comments

Ivan Schneider
With all the big things happening in mobile and interactive technology, who would have guessed that the biggest buzz at this year's South by Southwest (SXSW) would be jobs for the homeless? Marketing company BBH Labs captured the attention of the conference with the Homeless Hotspot. In a "charitable experiment," homeless people carrying MiFi wireless devices while wearing "I'M [NAME], A 4G HOTSPOT" t-shirts were deployed outside the SXSW conference to sell Internet access, $2 for 15 minutes.

Some call it exploitative, others ingenious. I call it half-baked.

When I buy Girl Scout cookies, the cookies are secondary. Similarly, when I pay $1 for the weekly edition of "Real Change News" from one of Seattle's homeless, it's not because I'm having trouble finding information and opinions about grass-roots social activism. In both cases, the purchase is motivated by support for the cause rather than a compelling need for the product offered.

By contrast, when I rent Internet access, it's a purchase based on real wants and needs with no immediate or viable alternatives.

If the wireless carriers were able to maintain sufficient levels of investment in telecom infrastructure, perhaps I wouldn't have as much trouble getting a strong signal on my mobile phone in a crowd. Or, if municipalities did a better job at bathing our cities and towns in glorious and free WiFi, we'd all be able to take advantage of fast, inexpensive networks without having to connect to a cellular tower. These are problems to be solved by additional investment in wireless infrastructure and forceful advocacy of open and public Internet access by municipalities, not through stopgap solutions involving a transient workforce.

The key purchase criteria for Internet access include security, convenience, and reliability, as well as price. I need to trust that the brand I'm using as a hotspot has implemented basic security protocols on its routers. I want as few barriers to access as possible, leading to a fast connection that won't drop unexpectedly. Finally, I want a good price, preferably free. Unfortunately, I don't see how Homeless Hotspots adequately satisfies these purchase criteria.

The biggest problem with the idea would be security exploits made possible through this kind of network. Suppose an adversary "borrows" the MiFi router and then hacks the password or swaps out the device for a compromised replacement. The adversary could then eavesdrop on your message traffic. Any network based on routers carried or managed by individuals could be subject to this type of attack. While it's possible for an insider or intruder to hack a Starbucks router, I'd rather take my chances with the baristas.

There's also the practical matter of whether you can count on having access at a certain location before you leave home, or whether your hotspot provider wouldn't decide to jump on a bus to escape the cold rather than sit around waiting for you to finish your 15-minute session. These are quality-of-service questions that don't come up when you're supporting a cause financially, but are paramount when you're buying something that you use for business.

Technology holds great promise for homeless people and their families. For example, we might imagine mobile social networks that connect people in need to available social services, whether medical treatment, mental health care, job training, or job opportunities. Technology can also support greater transparency in charitable giving, such that we can have better visibility into the outcomes from our contributions and therefore channel funds more effectively.

While the BBH Labs initiative may have done the country a service by starting a broader conversation about homelessness, I don't see Homeless Hotspots as an imitation-worthy business model. In general, I'd rather give a charitable contribution with no strings attached than depend upon a charity for a service or product that I rely upon.

In any event, based on the inherent limitations of the deployment model compounded by the fast-moving nature of wireless technology, I wouldn't count on seeing growth of the "Squee-G" wireless network anytime soon.

View Comments: Newest First | Oldest First | Threaded View
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Susan Fourtané   Homeless Hotspots   3/17/2012 4:40:09 AM
Re: Squee G Network
Yes, sohaibmasood, Thet actually could, if they want. 

-Susan 
User Ranking: Blogger
Henrisha   Homeless Hotspots   3/16/2012 11:42:14 PM
Re: Squee G Network
You couldn't have said it better, Andrew. I think this sort of appeal to people's charity works on some level--I mean, as Ivan said, sometimes he buys cookies because of the cause. I think the firms behind this are trying to capitalize on it. It won't work for all and definitely won't appeal to a lot of people. I'd be interested to see where this goes though; let's say the campaign fails, then what? What happens to the homeless people?
Broadway   Homeless Hotspots   3/16/2012 5:53:47 PM
Re: Squee G Network
I would be interested to see more on the risk management behind this plan. Are they prepared to handle the claims from angry customers claiming theyve suffers loss from an insecure service? How well do they screen their homeless participants? Are they prepared for the liability if a customer is assaulted by his or her hotspot?
singlemud   Homeless Hotspots   3/16/2012 11:31:45 AM
Re: Squee G Network
@Broadway, I am on the same boat on most of the issues. charity is based on mutual need.  The homeless hotspots is a good start, although it may not be practical as a business model.
sohaibmasood   Homeless Hotspots   3/16/2012 11:08:55 AM
Re: Squee G Network
@Susan: Exactly, if other companies see this as a way to help the homeless and strive to come up with more innovative and sustanable ideas it will make a difference in the long run. 
sohaibmasood   Homeless Hotspots   3/16/2012 11:04:52 AM
Re: Squee G Network
@Curtis: It is debatable, the motive behind the act matters to some individuals while for others the end result is much more important than the motive. I fall in the former category and therefore I value the motive behind the act. I am not a strong advocate of the phrase 'the end justifies the means'. 
Susan Fourtané   Homeless Hotspots   3/16/2012 3:40:17 AM
Re: Squee G Network
sohaibmassod,

I tend to agree with you. A one-time experiment is not going to make any changes. It will be worth it, though, if this was the first of a series of initiatives by BBH to help the homeless. Othere companies could be inspired to do something similar. 

-Susan 
User Ranking: Blogger
Susan Fourtané   Homeless Hotspots   3/16/2012 3:32:17 AM
Re: Squee G Network
Curtis, 

My opinion on this has gone back and forth, too. After a couple of days I believe I am inclined to see the benefits this kind of action could represent for the homeless. If some more companies try something similar ( I don't like the "I am a Hotspot" phrase, though) some of those homeless might find a full time job, an incentive to start looking for a job, or to do something to activate their lives. It's true that sometimes it takes only a little push to help someone change his/her life. 

-Susan 
User Ranking: Blogger
Broadway   Homeless Hotspots   3/15/2012 10:38:48 PM
Re: Squee G Network
Call me a brutal realist, a hardened jerk, or worse, but I buy the cookies because I want thin mints. Otherwise, I wish the Girl Scouts and their moms no harm but they better not harass me as I'm rushing to my evening train (there were girl scouts camped at my train stop for the last month, every day). I would buy wireless from a homeless guy or gal because I need it, not because I think it's going to turn their lives around or make a statement about homeless in the supposed best country in the world. Thus, the internet better work and be secure. That cookie best taste good.
CurtisFranklin   Homeless Hotspots   3/15/2012 6:08:13 PM
Re: Squee G Network
@Ivan, your cookie example is a variation on a problem that many wildlife conservation activists wrestle with: Saving the cute is much easier than saving the ugly. Save the dolphins? People write big checks and think of Flipper. Save the sharks? People think of "Jaws" and find other things to care about.

It's a very natural response in a certain sense, because "cute" translates to characteristics in common with human children.

Now, one thing that this does require is for the individual using the service to come close to the individual providing the service. That is, in my opinion, a good thing. Many studies show that we are capable of responding to the problems of an individual, but shut down when presented with the problems of a group. Turning "the homeless" into an individual is a positive step.
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