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Contact: Kathryn Perry, Web Lab (kperry@weblab.org)
Kevin Dando, PBS (kdando@pbs.org)

Innovative Web Lab Project Launches Today on PBS Online
New York, NY, July 19, 1999- Rate six real panhandlers, hear and read panhandling sales pitches and trade secrets, guess which panhandler will collect the most virtual money from Web users, and examine why some panhandlers are effective and some are often ignored, as NeedCom (www.pbs.org/weblab/needcom), a first-of-its-kind Web site, conducts mock market research on real panhandlers, using visitors to the site as the test market.
Debuting on PBS ONLINE today, NeedCom -- an inventive and original example of New Media Art -- is not designed to encourage or discourage visitors to give to panhandlers in real life, but rather to provide them with data and a context to examine their own perceptions of panhandling and how they form responses and opinions about people who panhandle. The site's interest-based navigation allows visitors to examine panhandling based on their own motivations, challenging them to define to whom they give and why, and to think about what panhandlers do with the money the receive.
Multiple mini-surveys, called "QuickPolls," offer an instant statistical glimpse into Web users' thoughts about panhandlers, asking questions such as, "Do you prefer to give your money to charities for the poor or directly to panhandlers?" Visitors can click on one of two answers to each question and immediately see how others responded.
In the "Panhandler Effectiveness Survey," the sales pitches of panhandlers are rated as visitors vote with their virtual wallets, giving individual panhandlers spare change up to $1.00. Following the survey, live-generated statistics show visitors how their responses compare to the reactions of other visitors, demonstrating how "generous" they are in comparison to others. The sections are designed to draw visitors into a closer examination of the act of panhandling, reframing it as an economic activity, rather than a question of charity or morality alone.
NeedCom is particularly unusual in that it combines two classic American capitalist activities: panhandling and market research. Panhandling is an economic enterprise of individuals in need, occurring outside the bounds of traditional business, and often the law. Market research is a tool large corporations use to quantify the impulses and personalities of the consumers they target. NeedCom addresses perceptions of neediness in a consumer culture that's increasingly driven by marketing, using a common corporate practice to uncover the subtle relationships between panhandlers and the people from whom they request money.
NeedCom's "Focus Group" area facilitates this examination with a database of opinions from both panhandlers and Web visitors. Visitors can discuss what they find most effective or most annoying about panhandling -- and real panhandlers describe what they think of their jobs and their customers and how much money they actually make.
NeedCom was created by California resident Cathy Davies. The 24-year-old artist's previous interactive work includes "Compression, a Multimedia Patheticomedy," which was a finalist in the l995 New Voices, New Visions Festival, a digital art competition sponsored by Interval Research Corporation and the Voyager Company. NeedCom appeared as a work in progress at the CoMA '97 Computer & Multimedia Arts Festival in San Francisco.
NeedCom received support from Round 2 of the Web Development Fund, a unique partnership between New York City-based Web Lab and PBS ONLINE, created to encourage innovative content development for the World Wide Web.
Web Lab (www.weblab.org), is a non profit that develops and promotes innovative ways to use the Web as a transformative force in people's lives and in society, and catalyzes others to experiment with the medium's potential to serve the public interest. Web Lab was founded by Marc Weiss, the creator and former executive producer of P.O.V., PBS's award-winning showcase of independent, non-fiction films.
PBS, headquartered in Alexandria, Virginia, is a private, nonprofit media enterprise owned and operated by the nation's 349 public television stations. A trusted community resource, PBS uses the power of noncommercial television, the Internet and other media to enrich the lives of all Americans through quality programs and education services that inform, inspire and delight. Available to 99 percent of American homes with televisions and to an increasing number of digital multimedia households, PBS serves nearly 100 million people each week. Additional information about PBS is available at www.pbs.org.

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