Questioning “Homeless Hotspots” at SXSW

Mar 19th, 2012 by OMAR

At Acton, our philosophies and programs are built around asking, rather than telling. Questions are the most surefire way to gain insight into what you don’t know (and don’t know that you don’t know) so that you can make an informed decision. This week presented a unique opportunity to shine some light on this practice.

Even after the SXSW Interactive conference had packed its bags and made way for its rowdier musical sibling, we still have found ourselves contemplating the real life case study that emerged from it. At this year’s event, previously credited for spring-boarding social media apps Twitter and Foursquare into the limelight, a different kind of social experiment called “Homeless Hotspots” created a widely reported stir that has continued through the week.

Lambasted and sometimes praised in online media circles and social media feeds, coverage quickly escaped tech spheres and included stories in The New York Times and on the Wall Street Journal blog. The program has been attacked. It’s been complimented.

Rather than wade into the sea of debate to dictate one more conclusion, we see this as a perfect real world opportunity to do one of our favorite things: ask questions designed to help entrepreneurs get to the core of a complex and compelling endeavor.

The Background

If you don’t already know, the four-day, experimental Homeless Hotspots program outfitted 13 homeless people in downtown Austin with mobile wireless Internet transmitters, business cards, and T-shirts identifying them both by name and as “4G Hotspots.” Anyone in need of wi-fi access was invited to connect to the transmitter in exchange for a donation, which required that they speak to and interact with the homeless participant in order to get the passcode. At the start of each five- to six-hour workday, each participant was paid $20 in cash and would keep all donations they generated during the day for providing wifi access. Each was guaranteed total payment of at least $50 per day.

London-based international marketing agency BBH Labs conceived the program and operated it with the support and guidance of Front Steps, an Austin nonprofit devoted to assisting the city’s homeless population and transition them into housing and employment.

The Questions

We love questions and there are a many thorny ones packed into the “Homeless Hotspots” program. A few of them follow, but you can see how they easily build to greater and deeper queries.

  • What was the program’s primary objective? Was it intended to make money, garner press, or champion a cause?
  • Who are the people behind it? Does the history of the program’s creators and organizers illustrate or suggest an expertise in this field? Does that seem to validate or invalidate their stated objectives? Is there a missing talent or expertise they should have hired or procured?
  • What were the guiding principles behind the program? Did the organizers remain true to them? Were they the right ones?
  • Were there any unintended consequences? If so, what were they? Were they positive or negative? What is the impact on the original concept and the larger aims of the effort? Did critics take issue with the program itself or the names and language that was used?
  • Who is the customer? Who did BBH Labs consider to be its customer? Was it the non-profit organization Front Steps, the broader cause of homelessness, BBH itself, or the wifi-seeking public? Did they choose correctly? How did this determine their strategy?
  • How were participants selected, treated, trained and managed? Was there anything about the program that disrespected, dehumanized or otherwise mistreated the participants? Do the participants’ opinions of themselves and the nonprofit organizers validate or invalidate this?
  • Were the right incentives used? Were the rewards for participation properly identified?
  • What would be different if the same program employed college students instead of homeless individuals? Does framing the program in a different context change the issue?

The Result

So what are the answers? That’s for you to tell us.

If you’ve ever been to one of our classes, you’ll know that the answers you get can take a discussion in many different directions. We designed our programs to arm entrepreneurs with the tools, mindset and practice to reach their own conclusions — informed by real world facts and guided by their own meaningful principles —  to make decisions, defend them and integrate those lessons into their larger entrepreneurial journey.

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Posted in EntrepreNews, Life of Meaning, News & Current Events

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