Posts Tagged ‘Homeless Hotspots’
29th January 13
Posted in Goodbyes
And so, it is with major regret that we see our very own Optimus Prime, @saneel, leave the Lab and BBH. Happily he’ll be staying in the extended family, launching a soon-to-be-announced innovation offering being incubated at VivaKi. So I guess he has a new world to call home.
Personally, I’m going to miss the magic mix of insanely high-speed processing, megawatt brain and heart, motor mouth and deeply droll, bone-dry sense of humour that is Mr Saneel Radia. There aren’t many people who give such volume, value and velocity, whilst staying ice cool under pressure. He’ll hate me for saying this, but his final post here shares some useful lessons that demonstrate all of the above.
We wish him all the best. Go well, friend. (Mel, 29.01.13)
Well that was a crazy ride, no? From my first day to my last, we’ve had one of the most unique relationships I can imagine. I should have known I was in for something special when someone I respect as much as Ben recruited me, and about 100 days later said “I have bad news and good news” (‘I’m leaving’ and ‘you’re in charge’, respectively).
You let me be whoever I wanted to be, and for that I’m eternally grateful. You never questioned me as a strategy lead, an account lead, or a creative lead– even when I kinda questioned myself.What’s most awesome is that I was never forced into a particular bucket, but you made me better at all of them because I was surrounded by people (everyone?) who could do it at a whole different level. I mean, pitching creative ideas to people like John and Pelle? Talking brands with Emma and Sarah? Of course I got better at all of it. It’d be impossible not to.
And thanks for being committed to innovation the way you are. In an industry that should be under arrest for assault based on its treatment of that word, this place continues to be a beacon of hope for people with different ideas. Any company that has someone like Mel around is going to have misfits ringing the doorbell daily. I’m just happy someone answered even though I was dressed in bright colors.
Finally, thanks for all of the lessons I’m taking with me as I move on. It’s impossible to document them all in a post, but these ring most loudly in my ears as I head off:
Small ideas are kinda hot.
I originally came to BBH because I couldn’t think of a place with “bigger” ideas. It turns out my favorite things were the small ideas. Working with interns 10 weeks at a time forces small ideas into greatness. Working with a company like Google, that regularly reminds you how bloated all your shit is (they were right more often than I’d like to admit), forced ideas into their purest form. Or sometimes it’s just not having enough time for anything bigger. Regardless, I fell in love with small. Mainly because of how big it can be. (Special thanks to Tim Nolan for aiding me along in this particular journey.)
The volume of noise isn’t indicative of the sentiment.
Homeless Hotspots was a media frenzy. There was a full cycle of negativity, then acceptance, then full-blown defense on our behalf. Yet from the beginning to the end, nothing but a positive impact on homelessness ever mattered; for the vast majority of people who care about such a thing (and have spent time with the homeless), their support always outweighed the negativity, no matter how loud the noise got. In fact, there was some genuinely productive, well meaning criticism we adopted as our work with the homeless has continued to evolve. It’s easy to see the difference now, but when the volume dial is set quite high, it can be a lot tougher. That’s clarity I’ll always take forward with me.
The greatest disservice one can do to their team is accepting their shitty work.
I’ve seen some really good days, and some really bad days in my 3-or-so years here. Almost unilaterally the bad days were the result of people not speaking up (myself included). When they were just too damn polite, or agreeable. Sure, it’s awkward sometimes. It’s uncomfortable every now and again. And yeah, you have to be able to speak “British” on occasion. But everyone worth a salt would rather make better work than have a good meeting. This is a lesson so many people have learned, but it took being at a place with a culture of mutual, fiery respect for me to truly appreciate it. I’m just glad you would tell me when I was shoveling shit.
With the right carrot, even the weary can be motivated.
It was a weird feeling, helping lead a city-wide effort to recruit LeBron James within weeks of moving here. But there I was, living in corporate housing, bonding with New Yorkers of every socio-economic class to create a movement to bring the world’s greatest athlete to the world’s greatest city. In the end, the goal was to get notoriously jaded New Yorkers to talk about their beloved city, and by that measure, holy smokes it was successful… even if LeBron took his talents to South Beach. The lesson stayed up north though: for all the user participation nonsense from brands, it’s ultimately the right carrot that gets people involved. Keep it simple (and timely), stupid.
Alright, BBH. I won’t drag it on any longer. I certainly could. I’m leaving a better, smarter, more creative person than I arrived. That’s a transformation I’m really excited about.
And all it took were a thousand sleepless nights and my liver….
13th December 12
As you hopefully recall from our last update, we’ve been working with StreetWise, the street paper of Chicago, to apply our learnings from Homeless Hotspots. StreetWise’s issues felt most appropriate to tackle not only because of the organization’s innovative mindset (see their recent launch of Neighbor Carts), but because solutions that work at scale in Chicago can likely work in most other cities. StreetWise is a member of both the North American Street Newspaper Association and the International Network of Street Papers, organizations that cover the majority of street papers across the world and ensure the best ideas at any single paper scale.
One of the first issues we’ve tackled together is digitizing the transaction. As of this week, people can use their mobile device to PayPal money to participating StreetWise vendors in a public beta. Similar to Homeless Hotspots, a visit to the vendor’s unique short URL will provide their personal story. This was a critical step in the process, as street newspapers play a much bigger role than employment for homeless individuals; they offer a chance for meaningful connection across socio-economic boundaries. Assuming a successful beta, the program will rollout across Chicago in January.
Street papers are the most valuable tool homeless populations currently have to step out of invisibility. We see the digitization of that process as a critical first step (as do a number of other street papers we’ve been talking to– they’re testing everything from QR codes to mobile issues). However, there’s a long way to go. It’s why our other ongoing project with StreetWise will involve piloting a more fundamental evolution of their offering. It’s a big undertaking, but hopefully it sets the stage for a new model, scalable across large cities around the world. The premise behind the idea is rooted in our learnings from Homeless Hotspots. As always, we’ll keep everyone posted on progress once the pilot has been completed.
We’d also like to give a special thanks to PayPal Labs. They’ve worked with us to create a custom offering to ensure mobile payments are seamless, secure, and free to the vendors to use. We’ve thoroughly enjoyed working with them.
As always, feel free to reach out with questions or comments. We don’t edit our blog comments unless they contain offensive language.
26th March 12
Posted in sxsw
When we started planning for SXSW, we could not have anticipated that our idea for a four-day philanthropic project to update the street newspaper model would spark such a widespread debate. The volume of the response to this program has reinforced our ongoing commitment to this issue, and the feedback has helped us explore the ways in which we can draw attention to it, support it, and effect change.
Homeless Hotspots has connected us with representatives of some of the nation’s leading advocacy groups and street newspaper organizations with whom we are beginning to have conversations about the challenges facing the current street newspaper model and ideas for overcoming these challenges with technology and innovation. In many ways, we owe these connections and the future of this program to those at front lines of this issue, like Mitchell Gibbs at Front Steps in Austin, Mark Horvath of invisiblepeople.tv, and writer Becky Blanton who spoke at TED about her time being homeless.
Where we go from here is directly tied to how we wrestle with some complicated issues that any street newspaper attempting to deploy change will have to answer for themselves – issues we’ve come to sharply appreciate amidst all the debate. Our aim is to partner closely with these groups to utilize the lessons and best practices learned from this experience. Based on conversations to date, our shared goal is a sustainable model that continues to bring homeless people entrepreneurial opportunities that challenge stereotypes, derive purpose and create meaningful interactions with society.
While street newspapers are facing the same challenges as many other traditional media outlets, there are a number of more complicated issues that need to be addressed. We’ve outlined the salient ones below.
1. Quantifying an acceptable level of provocation in the name of the cause. One of the big discussion points from Homeless Hotspots was the line “I’m a hotspot” on the t-shirts, a line we too debated internally before and during the program. The goal of the t-shirt was to create a marketing material that was provocative enough to get message-bombarded festival attendees to actually stop and speak with a homeless person – to spark a human connection and a conversation with a person who is often treated as invisible. Thus, the humanity of the project lived in the actual conversation between the Hotspot Manager and their customer. But what about the potentially negative reaction to that message by some that didn’t stop (or who simply weighed in from afar via the web)? It was many in this group that created a wave of negative sentiment online. While the participants in the program saw the shirts as an ideal social lubricant on the streets, the message took on new meaning when it spread online.
Any entrepreneurial sales venture for the homeless must be carefully designed. The newspaper organization basically works like a franchisor responsible for distributing materials to franchisees, but it must also work like a social service. This balance varies widely from organization to organization and is a complicated role for social enterprise. You want to help homeless participants (i.e., the franchisees), but you don’t want to do so at the expense of the cause itself.
2. Understanding the potential for partnership with a profit-driven company or brand. Because BBH is in the business of marketing and advertising, it was assumed early on that Homeless Hotspots was endorsed by a marketer. We fully funded the initiative and purchased the pocket-sized MiFi devices from Verizon just as any customer would, yet the reaction to the false reports of brand endorsement is an important one to explore. Many found the idea that a brand would employ homeless individuals to be offensive, while others said they’d support a brand initiative if it provided an employment opportunity. Of course, when people realized the partner was actually a local homeless shelter and that proceeds went directly to the individual Hotspot Manager, the sentiment was widely positive.
Before SXSW, we talked about how the long-term viability of a program like Homeless Hotspots would require bringing on a partner that could help financially support it. The costs of the technology and data usage for a program of this nature are significant, making the model difficult to scale beyond a short festival. A brand partner would have the resources to underwrite the costs of an ongoing effort, incentivized by the promotion of its technology; meanwhile, a social enterprise would have stronger public endorsement, but would be challenged to fund such a venture. The potential problem we saw was that when a social enterprise brings on a corporate partner, perceptions change. Emotionally, the social enterprise simply becomes enterprise for some. For others, the opposite is true. Street newspapers and homeless entrepreneurial efforts looking to share costs will have to decide where they fall on that spectrum and choose any partners wisely.
3. Determining the importance of content creation by participants. Where Homeless Hotspots differed most from an actual street paper is that the participants were not selling content they created (although it’s commonly misunderstood just how few of the homeless individuals that sell the papers actually create the content). Serving original content to a user upon log-in to a MiFi device is surprisingly complicated if you don’t manufacture the device yourself (thus we directed users to homelesshotspots.org for further information upon activating a connection).
There is an opportunity to create a more content-rich model for street newspapers and homeless entrepreneurs moving forward, especially as it relates to drawing attention to the causes of homelessness and prevailing stereotypes. For example, Hotspot Manager Jonathan is a talented musician, and there could be an opportunity to use the personal and web connectivity to draw attention to his talent, such as directing customers to a site promoting his music. The Hotspot Managers were also full of local expertise that could add more value to their conversations and connections (John Bird sees this as the future of street newspapers, which he invented when he founded The Big Issue). The absence of such content leaves a void.
The question remains whether or not consumers of the product value that content though. Looking at our own data (difficult to extrapolate from due to the extraordinarily large number of media impressions Homeless Hotspots received, which led to a disproportionate number of donations from non-users), it’s unclear how much the utility of the service vs. philanthropic impulse drove purchase. This is hard to come to terms with if you are a commercial enterprise. How can a business be a degree removed from its product? That sounds potentially negative, but we’ve left with mixed opinions on the matter. After all, the Hotspot Managers were still able to raise almost $4,000, even though the first 2 days of sales were extremely depressed by rain. If purchases were only about actual connectivity, the rain would have made Homeless Hotspots a financial failure for the participants.
What’s important is that the model moving forward must balance entrepreneurial opportunity, with supporting meaningful content and fostering personal interactions. Our data implies it was hearing an individual’s story (many times not even first-hand) that led to someone donating. This particular phenomenon in Underheard in NY already got us to rethink non-profits last year, and it’s especially important for social enterprise. Non-profits fighting homelessness don’t just want to help homeless populations, they want to stop homelessness altogether. But in many cases, customers of street newspapers seem solely focused on helping the individual in front of them. In a world where a homeless person sells a product without content, the one-on-one social interactions are their only opportunities for expression. Luckily, those conversations help overcome stereotypes (the 13 Homeless Hotspots participants had hundreds of conversations in just four days), but only if someone is provoked to stop and listen. Which brings us right back to issue #1.
We’ll keep everyone updated once we’ve identified which partner(s) we’ll be working with in future developments. We’re genuinely excited by the amount of interest from street papers around the world to collaborate on addressing the digitization of media. In the meantime, we can only hope the conversation around homelessness doesn’t step back into the darkness as the media circus winds down. You can certainly do your part by supporting organizations like our partner Front Steps. Even small donations can go a long way in helping them overcome their daily challenges long after conference attendees have left.
UPDATE (April 30, 2012): We are working with StreetWise, the largest street paper in the US deal with numerous modernization issues, including many of those outlined above. For more details, you can read the follow-up post.
6th March 12
Posted in sxsw
UPDATE & CLARIFICATIONS
There has been an enormous amount of coverage of this project, and unfortunately there has been a good deal of inaccuracies around the payment system and objectives of the program in general. Please follow this link that clarifies these points.
UPDATE: Obviously, there’s an insane amount of chatter about this, which although certainly villianizes us, in many ways is very good for the homeless people we’re trying to help: homelessness is actually a subject being discussed at SXSW and these people are no longer invisible. It’s unfortunate how much information being shared is incorrect (an unresearched story by ReadWriteWeb, which has now been updated is the epicenter of that misinformation). So, without being defensive (we welcome the educated critiques), we wanted to share a few key facts:
+ We are not selling anything. There is no brand involved. There is no commercial benefit whatsoever.
+ This is a test program that was always scheduled to end today (there’s no 2-week payment cycle)
+ Each of the Hotspot Managers keeps all of the money they earn. The more they sell their own access, the more they as individuals make (it’s not a collected pot to be shared unless people choose to donate generally).
+ Underheard in NY is NOT becoming a reality TV show. The confidential plans are much more akin to an interactive documentary. Regardless of what happens, it will stay true to the original idea: to give homeless people an unedited voice so people can understand their lives.
+ The biggest criticism (which we agree with actually) is that Street Newspapers allow for content creation by the homeless (we encourage those to research this a bit more as it certainly does not work exactly as you would assume). This is definitely a part of the vision of the program but alas we could not afford to create a custom log-in page because it’s through a device we didn’t make. However, we’d really like to see iterations of the program in which this media channel of hotspots is owned by the homeless organizations and used as a platform for them to create content. We are doing this because we believe in the model of street newspapers.
UPDATE 2: Thank you to everyone here for your comments, criticism, feedback and support. We can’t respond to every comment here, but we will be responding in the coming days.
Update 3: Another bit of information being reported inaccurately relates to the finances of the homeless individuals participating. To clarify: These volunteers were guaranteed make at least $50/day, for a maximum of 6 hours work. This amount equates to more than the Texas state minimum wage of $7.25/hr for the same number hours. Based on donations already received, we know their earnings will be higher than $50 for each of them – as was our intention. What’s been misunderstood is the break-out of money in cash per day vs. what’s received after the program ends. BBH provides a $20 cash ”stipend” to the volunteers each day regardless of their own sales. This is the cash amount that was handed to them each day while the program was live (it ended yesterday) and was advised specifically by our friends at Front Steps shelter, who madthumbs are conscious of the responsibility that comes with handing cash to someone facing financial challenges daily, but who still needs to work toward a long-term solution for housing and employment. The additional money raised by each Hotspot Manager will be delivered via money order from the shelter where they have a program in place that helps the participants save about 2/3′s toward their employment and housing goals. Again, this has all been built based on input from the shelter and the participants’ case managers in a way that’s best for the participants.
UPDATE 4: This isn’t quite an update as it’s reflected in the post below, but we wanted to clarify the latest bit of misinformation. The program was not “canceled;” it was always intended as a 4 day program. In fact, as the debate heated, it was the homeless volunteers themselves who insisted on seeing through the last day as an opportunity to share their side of the story. Thus we saw the program through as planned. We’ll be reporting on success metrics shortly but can confirm our friends at Front Steps Shelter in Austin consider it a great success for themselves. Read their reactions at facebook.com/frontsteps (or any of the media coverage they’ve received globally), and please consider a donation to one of the Hotspot Managers as we wrap things up via homelesshotspots.org.
UPDATE 5 (April 30, 2012): We are working with StreetWise, the largest street paper in the US deal with numerous modernization issues, including many of those outlined in our post of learning points from this program. For more details, you can read the follow-up post.
****Original Pre-SXSW Post Below****
As always this time of year, we’re abuzz in anticipation of SXSW Interactive. Whether it’s talks we’re attending, or the talks we’re giving, SXSW is a consistent growth opportunity for the team. This year though, we’re also trying a bit of charitable innovation.
As you may know, we created Underheard in NY last year via our Barn intern program. The premise was simple: give homeless individuals a voice via Twitter. The program was so successful that you’ll be seeing an update on its unexpected future at some point soon.
Since then, we’ve stayed interested in the homeless issue. One particular aspect we find intriguing is Street Newspapers, which are print publications created and sold by homeless populations as a form of entrepreneurial employment. The model has proven successful enough to be adopted in cities spanning 30 countries. The issue however, is that like any print publication, these newspapers are under duress from the proliferation of digital media. How often do you see someone “buy” a paper, only to let the homeless individual keep it? This not only prevents the paper from serving as a tool for the individual to avoid begging, but it proves how little value people actually place on the publication itself. Yet the model isn’t inherently broken. It’s simply the output that’s archaic in the smartphone age.
So we decided to modernize it.
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. We’re believers that providing a digital service will earn these individuals more money than a print commodity.
We’re using SXSW as our beta test. Hopefully you can help us optimize and validate this platform, which we hope to see adopted on a broader scale. Any and all support is appreciated (including donations from afar).
Visit homelesshotspots.org for more details.