South by Southwest: 'Homeless hotspot' program stokes controversy
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She called the experiment a modernized version of homeless selling street newspapers. All of the money paid for Wi-Fi — an often difficult thing to find at SXSW — went to the participants, who were selected in partnership with Front Steps. ($2 was the recommended donation for 15 minutes of use.)

But many have called the program exploitive. wrote that it “sounds like something out of a darkly satirical science-fiction dystopia.” Techology blog ReadWriteWeb called it a “blunt display of unselfconscious gall.” The topic became one of the most popular in the country on Twitter by Tuesday.

Critics have claimed the experiment turned homeless people into inanimate objects for the benefit of well-heeled techies. In an online op-ed, The Washington Post wondered “Have we lost our humanity?”

Cookson took pains to say BBH was listening to criticism of the experiment, which ended Monday. It had been meant to begin Friday but rain delayed its full implementation until Sunday.

Meanwhile, some tech start-ups are hoping to garner more positive buzz. Hayley Tsukayama reports:

Instagram was a South by Southwest darling in 2011, when it came in with 2 million users and a new app just in time for the technology conference. That app added a news feed and other features that led it to become Apple’s top app of the year for 2011.

In his comments, Systrom said that being named the top app, combined with the launch of the iPhone 4S, led to a significant spike in users.

South by Southwest — SXSW to its friends — has proven to be a good launching ground for some tech start-ups, though not for all. Foursquare and Twitter both owe some thanks to SXSW for launching their growth, though the group messaging apps that were supposed to take off last year have yet to become household names. Gowalla, a Foursquare competitor introduced at the same SXSW, announced Monday that it will be closing, after being acquired by Facebook in December.

Gowalla users will be able to download their data from its homepage “soon,” according to a message on the developer’s homepage.

Melissa Bell reports that the event is carrying a decidedly political imprint this year:

Most years at the technology portion of South by Southwest festival here, the buzz follows location-based apps, games or communication tools. This year, though, a political undercurrent has charged the event.

Nowhere was that more apparent than in a late addition to the lineup: a conversation between Al Gore and Napster co-founder Sean Parker. In an hour-long talk, the two men discussed a political system Gore said was “hacked.”

“I’d like to see a new movement called Occupy Democracy,” Gore said as Parker nodded in agreement and a packed auditorium of technology attendees cheered and applauded.

The two men discussed what they said was the intrusion of big business into the democratic process, and their hopes for the Internet to take power away from the political industry.

“The Internet is incredibly good at taking money out of other industries,” Parker said, referring in part to the music industry whose sales have plummeted over the past decade, in part because of music sites such as Parker’s Napster. “My hope is the Internet can do for the political process what it did for the copyright industries.”

Parker is working with three companies --CausesNationBuilder and Votizen -- that he said are just the first online tools to help connect voters and political candidates without the interference of money.

Votizen works to identify politically active voters to provide candidates a way to “harvest” voters without having to spend billions of dollars on television advertising, Parker said.


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